US President Donald Trump’s summit with his Russian counterpart Vladamir Putin concluded with an extraordinary press conference on Monday night. It largely descended into a battle about US domestic politics, with Trump relitigating the 2016 presidential election, claiming that he beat his opponent Hilary Clinton “easily” and labelling the Mueller investigation a “disgrace”. Trump lost the high-ground by falling into the trap of political muckraking instead of focusing on international issues. This allowed Putin to escape scrutiny and legitimized him as a leader of international stature. And Trump is likely to pay a high price for this misstep.
The question of whether Putin had damaging material on Trump also found its way into the presser.
The summit took place against an unusual backdrop. First, on Friday, Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officers for interfering in the 2016 election. The timing could not have been worse – Trump faced pressure to cancel the meeting.
Second, concluding his visit to the UK, Trump’s remarks about Russia antagonized his critics:
Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
He also blamed Obama for the mess:
[He] thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election, so when he was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it. When I won it became a big deal …
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
Then the president said his critics would never give him credit no matter what he obtained during the summit, and even suggested the EU was a bigger foe than Russia. Many including Sen. John McCain called for the meeting to be cancelled. Trump ignored them.
What are the key flashpoints?
First, Russia is accused of interfering in the 2016 election. In addition to the Mueller indictments of the 12 Russian military officers on Friday, other Russians and entities have been indicted by the Department of Justice this year. The Senate Intelligence Committee and other bodies have confirmed that Russia interfered in the election and there is now little reason to believe Russia.
Second, Russia annexed Crimea in violation of international law. The US and the West oppose Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and reject Crimea’s integration into Russia. The EU and US have both imposed sanctions and Russia was suspended from the G8 over Crimea. Ukraine continues to be influenced by Russia.
Third, Russia and America don’t see eye-to-eye on Syria. Russia backs Assad and has been accused of committing war crimes in that country. It also has a loose partnership with Turkey and Iran in Syria – against US interests. The US has killed at least 200 Russian mercenaries in military strikes. De-escalation and elimination of the Iranian presence are essential for Trump to be able to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria. In addition, a commitment to policing Assad from using chemical weapons would be necessary.
Fourth, Russia’s support for the Iranian regime is inimical to US interests.
Fifth, Russia is an ally of Kim Jong-Un and may be vital to nudging North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. Putin may be using Kim as a pawn in his larger power-play against America.
Sixth, there is no agreement on arms reduction as the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty is due to expire in 2021.
Seventh, Russia is allegedly engaged in cyber-attacks against America and its European allies. Russia, in turn, has alleged that it is the victim of malicious cyber activity, including during the World Cup. An agreement to cease attacks against elections, key infrastructure such as power plants, and public services has been elusive.
Eighth, Russia opposes NATO’s expansion eastward and believes it violates a US commitment to maintain status quo at the end of the Cold War. The US believes it is merely acceding to the security needs of Eastern-bloc states which are apprehensive about Russian aggression. And Trump has asked for NATO allies to increase defense spending to 4% of GDP. Clearly, Russia opposes this and both sides are locked in a progressive cycle of escalation.
Ninth, harsh sanctions against Russian individuals and entities under US laws. Many of these are closely connected to Putin and he wants them lifted.
What was the outcome?
The summit was delayed because of Putin’s late arrival from Moscow – apparently a tactic to assert dominance. Trump responded by arriving at the venue 10 minutes after Putin. At the start, both leaders made brief media statements and Trump said, “frankly we have not been getting along for many years …. We will end up having an extraordinary relationship” and explained that “getting along with Russia is a good thing”. The president, appearing to set the stage for arms control talks, noted “the world wants to see us get along … we are the two great nuclear powers …we have 90% of nuclear weapons … that is a negative force.”
Then the two had a one-on-one meeting for two hours without any advisers.
In the press conference after the summit, both parties said that negotiations were “fruitful”. In his opening remarks, Putin said the “tense atmosphere [between the two countries] has no substance … Cold War is a vestige of the past … there are a whole new set of challenges … [including] regional crises …creeping threat of terrorism … snowballing risks in economy …”.
Putin said there was a “joint wish to redress this negative relationship … restore acceptable level of trust … [because] as major nuclear powers we bear special relationship [for world peace].”
He also said they needed “to work further on disarmament agenda …nonplacement of weapons in space …maintaining cybersecurity.”
He said the “cooperation between special forces should be put on systematic framework …[and] overlapping mutual interests abound.” Putin said Syrian peace could be “showcase example of cooperation …[and] Russia is interested in providing security to Israel … [referring to Golan Heights].” Putin wanted the US to “be more decisive in nudging Ukraine to abide by Minsk agreement.” He said they agreed “to create a high-level working group to bring together …businessmen” to promote grassroots cooperation.
Remarkably, Putin revealed that Trump raised “so-called Russian interference” and emphatically said the “Russian state has never interfered with American elections.” He craftily said, “we can analyse this at working group on cyber security.”
Trump’s remarks described the talks as very fruitful. He said they spent a “great deal of time talking about [Russian interference] and Putin has an interesting idea.” Trump mentioned the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and said they “agreed to maintain open communication between our security agencies … told [Russia] about a plan to attack St Petersburg and they were able to stop it cold.”
Taking questions, Putin said they could “work together on regulation of oil and gas markets … [going] beyond a price bracket it is no longer profitable … we are not interested in driving prices up …” Putin also sought to dispel fears about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline saying “Russia stands ready to maintain transit through Ukraine.”
Trump returned to his complaints about the Mueller probe. He said the probe “is a disaster for our country … there was no collusion at all …it was a clean campaign …I beat Hilary Clinton easily … zero collusion …it has had a negative relationship between the two largest nuclear powers … it’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”
Responding to a question on extradition, Putin responded “could you name one single fact that could prove the collusion? It is nonsense …with regard to 12 officers …I will look into it… we have a treaty that dates back to 1999 – mutual assistance on criminal matters …last year there was one extradition case based on request by Americans …Mueller can use this treaty and send an official request to us …and we can interrogate these individuals … and send materials to the US.” Putin even had the chutzpah to offer to “meet you halfway [by allowing] Mueller into the country and they can be present during questioning.” However, he had a condition: “this must be mutual. … Americans must reciprocate …American intelligence officers who are involved in criminal activity …we have an interest in questioning them …”
Troubling for Trump’s supporters, in response to a question about whether he believed Putin or American intelligence, Trump said: “where is the server? What is the server saying? President Putin said it’s not Russia … I have confidence in both parties …what happened to Hilary Clinton’s emails …. I don’t think they would be gone in Russia so easily … it’s a disgrace …Putin was extremely strong in his denial … think it’s an incredible offer [referring to Putin’s offer of investigation]”
This is likely to be a huge mistake for Trump.
Putin added, “The final say is for the court to deliver … the private individuals …we have a treaty …we will analyse it properly and send a proper response.”
Putin also denied he had any compromising information on Trump calling the rumours “nonsense.”
The press conference is likely to be damaging to Trump because he seemed to equate Putin with American intelligence agencies. He gave equal credence to the DOJ’s evidence about Russian election interference and Putin’s denials. This will be impossible to sell politically.
From a purely American domestic politics standpoint, the press conference eroded any benefits for Trump from the summit. It will likely galvanise his opponents and convince them that Putin controls him. At the international level, it remains to be seen if this summit brings peace to Syria.
In the immediate aftermath, it appears that Putin is the early winner. Whether that will change, only time will reveal.