Harry C. Blaney III
The recent events, including Trump’s Poland speech with its destructive “Clash of Civilizations” and subsequent meeting of Putin and Trump has put the world into not only turmoil but towards dangerous trajectories on many levels and into many conflict zones which heighten risks for all. But we still need to talk to Russia but with a lot more focus and sense of the reality of the challenges we face. Some of this due to our own and especially Trump’s foolishness combined with Putin’s malevolent goals which are not helpful to peace or security especially for Europe and Russia’s neighbors and for Western Unity.
The following are among the most serious elements after G-20 and Hamburg meetings that have created high levels of concern by Western governments and people but also even some indicators for worry for some Russians. Even after the Putin-Trump talks the reality remains of a wide disparity between Russian intentions and American values and interests. The simple fact nevertheless is that both the West and Russia have more to gain from cooperation than they have to continue dangerous paths.
RUSSIAN-UNITED STATES RELATIONS AND FUTURE TRAJECTORY:
There is a great debate going among engaged American experts and citizens over the short and long-term implications of an America headed by Donald Trump and Russia headed by Vladimir Putin. Both have values and a world view that is detrimental to their own country and to world stability and security. The flaws of each indicate truly dangerous scenarios are likely to be forthcoming. Yet we should seek accommodations that make for a safer world but not be lured to act against our values and strategic interests. The ending of the bilateral meeting did not signal that Putin has changed in any way his efforts to undermine democracy in America, Europe, or disparage Western values or give up any of his Ukrainian taken territory. The denial by Putin that he interfered with our 2016 election only reinforces the deceit and cunning by Putin which also was shown by his further denial of any Russian troops in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. These Trump did not challenge.
THE MIDDLE EAST, TERRORISM, ISIS, SYRIA AND IRAQ & TRUMP – PUTIN MEETING
Some have thought especially in the Middle East we could engage in a military clash between the US and Russia. Both sides seem to recognize that possibility. But a question is whether military deescalation was fully addresses in Hamburg at the key meeting with Putin and Trump which took place over two hours with the presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The outcome as much as we can see was a nebulous, “ defined agreement” using Sec. Tillerson’s words, on lowering violence in southwest Syria which is not the center of much of the brutal fighting. In principle,this is a good idea. But the lake of some of its specifics, and given that past agreements on cease fires by Russia and Russian ally the brutal Assad have failed. Thus, we need to have a bit of skepticism. Possibly too optimistically, Tillerson also said re the accord, “This is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together.” Forgetting how many such accords were agreed in the Obama administration and then immediately broken by the Russians.
There are reports that the Russian military will be the force on the ground to police the “cease fire” or safety area, but they are partisan combatants on the side of Assad and his Sunni forces and not a neutral party. One must ask what these forces might do to American supported anti-Assad forces also fighting ISIS, and civilians who are majority Shia seeking safety from Assad’s mass killings and bombing? Will there be UN observers to monitor this zone, will humanitarian groups be able to provide assistance, food and shelter and protection? In the past these safeguards were denied by Assad and Russia. Were they even fully thought about when they created to this “accord?” The stand down is supposed to start on Sunday. I hope there is more substance to and oversight of this “agreement” than meets the immediate eye.
There are other antagonistically “hot spots” that are not likely to go way soon unless both sides change their behavior and adjust their goals and agree that cooperation is in both country’s interest. At the moment, Putin is clearly not standing down in some key areas and Trump is almost impossible to predict given lies and often acts in contradictory ways given individual contexts. Has he for example, given up Assad on the butcher of his Syrin people? There was some talk that Assad might not be there forever. That makes for a very confused situation.
The problems of Syria are complex with Russia, Iran and the U.S. and others involved militarily. The Ukraine problem still festers with continuing conflict in the East with Russian backing of the rebels. There are increasing tension also on the military side with Russia reinforcing their armed forces close to their borders with NATO countries. NATO allies are doing the same to reinforce the commitment to defend them. Trump finally acknowledged in his Poland visit the NATO commitment to come to the aid of an attacked party. Did also Trump bring up violations by Russia of our treaty with them on intermediate nuclear force basing in Europe? It was not mentioned in the debriefs.
MORE FALL OUT FROM PUTIN-TRUMP MEETING:
The most simple assessment would be that Putin won and Trump capitulated to him on interference in our election. There remains much ambiguity about the specifics of a still undefined or “shadow” cease fire in a non-key area where Russia will, by plan, be made more dominant in Syria. Was there, hopefully, a long term strategy to stop the carnage or bring real peace but keep for now Assad in power?
Afterwards, Tillerson also said in a press briefing that the Syrian agreement was a “defined agreement” and could be a precursor to further cooperation in Syria.” Secretary Tillerson added that “This is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” Remarkably he also stated they had a lengthy discussion of other areas in Syria where we can work together. Let us hope it will lead to progress, but the odds seem very high against it if Putin does not change his strategic objectives.
The Russian press spin on the meeting was the leaders discussed the situation in the Ukraine and Syria, the fight against terrorism and cybersecurity. Putin’s own take on the talk was more general and he said: “I had a very lengthy conversation with the president of the United States, there were a lot of issues such as Ukraine, Syria other problems, some bilateral issues.” The Russian Foreign Minister said that Trump had accepted the statement that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 election!
All of this on the surface seems positive until we remember that under Obama and Kerry we came to many “agreements” about cease-fires in Syria and even Ukraine that fell apart as Russia and its allies violated them in both cases a number of times.
One disturbing element of the outcome of the talks is that a Russian representative, as we noted above, said that Trump “accepted” Putin statement that he did not interfere with US elections, while an unnamed US official said he did not accept that statement. Thus at the end of the meeting there was already a major conflict in how both sides see or interpret what happen in the meeting on the a vital issue of Russian interference in the US election. Both leaders clearly wanted to get rid of this “bothersome issue.” But it will not go away in America as it is fundamental to our democracy and security.
On the North Korea threat, which was also a side issue in this bilateral context, albeit an important one, it was reported that Russia pushed back on more economic sanctions on North Korea even after the recent missile test which is banned by the UN Security Council. Which raises another example of Russia trying to undermine American action, security interests and influence across the global space.
The harsh reality is that there is not likely yet any change in Putin’s strategic stance regarding Russian dominance in the region they call “The Near Afar” which includes the old Warsaw Pact nations, like Ukraine, the Baltics, etc. And now beyond, to areas that Putin considers constitute regions of new interest and new suitability to influence including Syria, Iran, China and Eurasia and elsewhere.
G-20 GROUP MEETING:
This platform largely served as a way for global leaders to meet their piers and hash out the key problem areas and find some consensus and solutions. They talked to one another most likely of how bad Trump is for the global order and despaired over what they experienced.
There were sidebars with the heads of China, South Korea, and Japan and with the key European leaders. In these meetings the Paris Agreement, global trade, and sanctions on Russia came up. There was deep anger at Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord.
Basically, on the question North Korea, a key focuses of the G-20 nations, the key unsolved problem was how to initiate strong diplomatic pressure with the key actors and possible added sanctions. Clearly this problem has no simple solution. And clearly the key actors have different views and interests which make a concerted response to solve this challenge highly problematic. Back of the mind of all leaders was the danger of the unacceptable option of taking the various paths that can only lead to catastrophic conflict.
THE UNITY OF THE WEST, “COMMON VALUES” AND INTERESTS THREATENED:
Perhaps sadly, the best statement coming out of the G-20 Meeting was by President Emmanuel Macron when he said: “Our world has never been so divided.” He added “Centripetal forces have never been so powerful. Our common goods have never been so threatened.” There was overwhelming consensus among most G-20 leaders that Trump was directing a deliberate effort to divide the West and demean the EU and the idea of international common cooperation or multi-lateralism. They saw him trying to destroy the post WW II framework that America established to unify the global democracies.
Trump made no real effort to help unify the West, just the opposite. In keeping with the ideas of his top strategist the far Alt-Right Stephen Bannon, who holds that one needs to destroy or “deconstruct” our global institutions and recreate a world of what one can call “Trumpism.” Or better described, “the survival of the fittest” with the key element being hatred of “the other” including immigrants, and supporting super authoritarian nationalism. These account also for Trump’s support of European neo-Fasists parties who share the same prejudices and racism. As a result, the meeting was adding to disunity, a result that Trump seemed to take pride in.
In keeping with these views, the decision to pull out of the Paris Accord was one of the most stupid destructive acts by an American president in our history. I think it was a deliberate effort to sow disunity. Trump also took the occasion to threaten global trade including with Europe on steel exports. This did nothing to heal any of the wounds he already had caused.
Meeting with other leaders especially of Europeans were not happy affairs including with Angela Merkel who must have wondered how he picked a similar key Nazi phrase in his campaign that Germans know only too well. In the end, Trump’s “America First” did not go over and people, including the protesters in Hamburg, saw it as a threat to global economic, European unity and democracy.
Finally, the winner in all this is Putin as planned. He help create “destructive Trump” and all he had to do is shake hands, make some gestures of friendship, and continue his aggressive actions at no cost. Trump was doing it for him. He gained recognition as a big global player. Trump got the spotlight of the media and loathing by most of the world. He got nothing not, even a promise to work towards more nuclear arms control agreements, stop violating treaties, decrease major military threats, build new confidence building efforts, and move towards reducing especially hair trigger nuclear weapons.
In sum, a bad two days for the world’s population. More on the significance of the meetings and analysis on follow-though and impact in our future posts.
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