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Trump’s perception of Russia and Putin

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]mong all bilateral ties, the ones between the Cold War foes play most significant place in world politics. Answers to several questions on international tensions could easily be found if one knows the aspects of US-Russia relations. At least for this reason, the relations between these top most rival powers need to be comprehended properly.

Donald Trump is perhaps the only US president who in years since the WW-II never made any criticism of Russia as part of his policy rhetoric. All his predecessors, keeping in view the views of the Neocons and Israeli leadership that speaks through the powerful Jewish leaders in USA, made a special reference to Russian policy to slam that arch rival as US key position.  

Upon the unexpected and rather shocking victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election held in December 2016. In this context there have been ongoing allegations of Russia’s involvement in hacking in the election campaign by the Kremlin meaning thereby on the order of the Russian President Putin, supporting Doland Trump and against the “official” candidate Hillary Clinton. This has been emphatically denied not only by the Russian Government. Even as there is an ongoing debate and controversy, the US President-elect, Donald Trump, has shrugged off allegations that Russia meddled in the election. Thus even as both Putin and Trump denied wrong doing, both seem to have benefited, according to a few critics.

As White House was battling to stop master of aggressive rhetoric Donald Trump’s arrival as its custodian, President Putin has managed to showcase his leadership quality, often critical, in the media in the USA. Putin has long believed that the United States has sought to manipulate Russia’s political structure, and provided covert support for democratic insurgencies through nongovernmental organizations.

On top of all this is blatant Russian interference in the recent US national election, clearly aimed along partisan lines against the Democratic Party and its candidate, Secretary Clinton.

Every president at one point or other said USA must reset ties with Russia for creating a genuinely peaceful world. But none has been serious about what they say in public. Trump has aloe said it. The Obama regime tried to have a reset with Russia, and ended up badly. The efforts of the George W. Bush administration ended up badly, too. There are fundamental differences in how the USA and Russia view the world. It is very easy to come to the agreement that we collaborate on fighting the Islamic State and other emerging threats. But putting these pledges into real actionable policies is quite difficult.

Alliance or enmity?

Today, Russia is becoming the scandal the Trump regime just can’t shake. A steady drip of revelations regarding the Trump team’s communications with Russian officials is dismaying congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, leading to calls for a more intensive investigation into the circumstances and substance of these connections. In particular, many lawmakers were surprised by a report in The Washington Post that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice spoken with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign. In sworn testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions had appeared to say that no such conversations took place.

Trump might not be a thorough politician or authoritative diplomat but he is well versed in business diplomacy. Putin’s shrewd diplomacy is evident from the fact that (as reported by the Russian press on December 30, 2016) after Trump got elected he opted out of a tit-for-tat retaliation against the USA which under Obama’s government in November 2016 had kicked out 35 Russian officials over allegations of hacking aimed at interfering in the US election, espionage, and harassment of US diplomats in Russia. At any rate this has further helped Trump to hold on to his contention in favour of Putin and improve relations with Russia. As a successful businessman Trump knows he would reap dividends from Russia if the ties are strengthened.

President Trump is therefore very interested in trying to figure out a way to improve relations with Russia, while Putin wants all economic sanctions slapped on the Kremlin following the annexation of Crimea, withdrawn. It appears, Trump is not entirely averse to that. But there is a lot of talk in Washington about having a grand bargain with Russia. Trump wants to use Russia to fight ISIS but Russia wants USA to support Syrian Assad but Israel and Neocons warn Trump not fall into the Kremlin’s trap. Israel is unhappy that USA refused to abide by the Zionist demand of attacking Iran.

Throughout the campaign and the initial days of his presidency, Trump has continued to express admiration for President Putin and his desire for warmer relations with Moscow. Though he seemed to backtrack at a press conference in Washington and a weekend rally in Florida, and though Vice President Mike Pence offered boilerplate reassurances at a conference in Munich that Washington intends to hold Russia “accountable” for provocations aimed at undermining NATO and the European Union, Trump himself has clung to his view that closer cooperation with Russia is needed to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism. “If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me,” he said, “that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

President Trump is yet to make up his mind over foreign policy issues. Against this backdrop, there are what the media call “mixed signals” coming from the White House where Russia, among other topics, is concerned. The president’s attitude (it cannot be called a policy) so far is simply that it is better to have Russia as a friend than as an enemy. The new secretary of state has been silent to date. Our ambassador to the United Nations has taken a traditionally critical position concerning Russia’s actions in opposition to us and our allies. And, perhaps most ominously, senior “strategists” in the White House have signaled, at least indirectly, that they welcome the rise of a right wing, across Western democracies, that identifies with Putin’s nationalism, cultural conservatism, religious orthodoxy, demonization of immigrants and resistance to social toleration.

Given the limited US interests, if the USA were to have some grand bargain with Russia, Central Asia would fall back into the Russian orbit as a place that Trump is not going to focus on. But there is counter-terrorism cooperation between Central Asian states and the USA. Some of the cooperation will remain, but it will be on a limited basis, not any big initiatives.

Compounding the confusion is the appointment of a secretary of state whose considerable interactions with Russian officials have all been corporate and commercial. Conflicts in interests are well known and documented: Russia’s seizure of Crimea and de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine; tacit pressure on the “near abroad,” especially in the Baltic region; troublesome relations between the Putin regime and expanding western European right-wing political parties; and Russian military and political support for the Assad regime in Syria.

Putin plan?

Putin’s actions indicate he is seeking to make an effort to reestablish Soviet Union in another form, though the Kremlin continues to deny that. While most former Soviet republics have joined the EU and NATO, even the corrupt Central Asian regimes are also not very keen to return to square one. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated prior to that meeting that Putin believed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a mistake and disaster. While the disintegration cannot now be reversed, Putin believes in a “new integration in the space of the former Soviet Union”.

Putin’s leadership at domestic and regional levels has assumed significance. On December 26, 2016 Putin met with the leaders of several former Soviet republics in St. Petersburg, a day after the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Presidents of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were in St. Petersburg recently for the meetings, which included informal summits of the Eurasian Economic Union, that has become a reality in 2015, and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Hence with that objective at that summit Putin expressed his hope that the creation of a favourable business environment was needed to achieve full-fledged development of their economies. He opined that since forming a common market with the other Eurasian Economic Union countries about two years ago, trade between them has already increased significantly. This has been possible since non-tariff trade barriers have been slashed by 30 per cent and a single market for drug and medical products has been created. Thus by 2025 the EEU aimed at the formation of a common financial market and common markets for gas, oil, and petroleum products, with harmonized rules of trade. By this Putin’s objective and vision may partly be achieved. In fact ever since Putin came to power in 1999, his mission has been to make Russia great again and restore its due place in contemporary world history.

Likewise, the Trump government’s attitude toward the Atlantic alliance, especially NATO, is untethered. The new president has called NATO “obsolete,” and costly affair but his secretary of defense confirmed America’s continuing commitment to the alliance to face the “threats”. At the very least, this causes confusion in European capitals. Is the USA committed to its principal post–World War II security alliance, or should each nation make its own arrangement with Moscow? At stake in all this is not simply the future US-Russian relationship, but even more importantly the US relationship with Europe and the democratic world.

Trust deficit

USA does not trust Russia and other Socialist countries mainly because they oppose capitalist ideologies and as such they would perish. Most Americans for sure believe Russia has not fully given up its ideological agenda though the last Soviet President Michael Gorbachev helped Russians shed along with communist-socialist ideals plus implementation and imbibe so-called democratic values being exported by USA and other capitalist nations.

Humanist Gorbachev, however, mistook American political gimmicks for since intent and thought western democracies are sincere about their claim of focusing on creating genuine peace globally but the USA in fact equates its capitalist ideology as mechanism for promoting neocolonialism and universal democratic values. That is the height of nonsense.

President Trump’s visceral belief, that it is better to have Russia as a friend than an enemy, makes sense. On the other hand, it blurs real differences between what Russia views as its interests and what we view as ours. And, for a president with no foreign-policy experience and still-dubious prior relationships with Russia, it can lead to serious misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Trump never criticized Russia or its president openly or rudely as he does with Muslims or even China, thereby leaving a playfield for diplomatic maneuvers. Who then says trump does not know niceties of high level diplomacy?

President Trump has expressed his admiration for the Russian leadership’s quality and strength to deal with problems including fight against Islamic terrorism, which will also be his own policy priority. Moreover there is media speculation whether with improved relations with Putin, Trump will soften Western policy of economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. In fact it is important to note that Trump also did not support the media allegation against Putin as a ‘killer’ that was reported by Times Global on February 6, 2017. Russia has demanded apology from the American media persons. Looking back, in 2016 along with Putin’s rising power certain events proved positive for Russia. For instance, the Brexit vote exposed the deep rifts in the European Union that have benefited Russia as some of the EU members are critical of Putin. It may be argued that Putin’s regime has taken careful aim at the soft underbelly of Western democratic institutions. Hence Donald Trump’s victory might pave the way for a break from the traditional Washington policy towards Moscow that Putin has been looking for.

There is a lot of pushback among the Democratic Party in the USA against a better relationship with Russia. The controversy in the U.S. right now over what sort of influence the Russian government had in the US political system during the campaign complicates Trump’s ability to implement his Russia policy. But Trump is, sometimes, unrelenting and he just decides he wants to do it. My inclination is that it might not be a successful one. Like the Obama, Bush and the Trump regimes may find the US-Russia relations end up far worse than when they began.

No one in US Congress wants to take a stand on the Russia question, then be disproved by later events. After all, former national security adviser Michael Flynn initially denied contacts with the Russian ambassador prior to the election. That turned out to be untrue and he was forced to resign. Some ruling GOP members are now joining Democratic members in calling for Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the election, or even appoint a special prosecutor for an independent effort. Such a probe could distract and dispirit the White House for months, as Benghazi and Iran-Contra investigations did for other administrations in different times and circumstances.

Russia boosts image in Mideast

Energy rich Mideast has one major problem-Israel which succeeded in garnering high precision terror goods from USA and Europe, maneuvering the corrupt US politicians cutting across their bi-party mischief.

Notwithstanding mutual tensions, Russia and USA coordinate their pro-Israeli policies to terrorize the Palestinians whose lands they allowed the Israelis with a managed legal basis on illegal means to confiscate to create Israel on Palestine and begin slashing the Palestinian population by regular genocide efforts on fake pretexts. That is real strength of Israel in attacking and killing the Palestinians, besieged by both Israeli and Egyptians terror blockades.

Both USA and Russia have been competing for bulk military orders from Arab nations and both enjoy their strong presence in Mideast eminently aided by Israeli provocative politics but now wing the Arab Spring and Nato terror wars in Mideast with Israeli backing USA lost its advantage at least for the time being and Russian has overtaken the upper power in selling terror goods to corrupt Arab nations.

Arrogance and Zionist instincts displayed openly by President Donald Trump leave very little hopes for the humanity and its survival. His anti-Muslim rhetoric has emboldened already criminalized Israel. As one of first foreign “dignitaries”, Trump welcomed criminal PM Netanyahu at White House who speaks American English fluently facility that the Palestinians leaders badly lack. Trump, like a prominent Israeli lobbyist Mrs. Clinton would have done, would even embark upon his first foreign trip to Israel.  

Image of Putin’s Russia as becoming a very important military power has become explicit with its interventions in Crimea, East Germany, Syria. It is a matter of great global significance that Putin has been able to bring about a ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict. On December 28, 2016 the Syria ceasefire deal was signed and Russia and Turkey were ‘Guarantors’ for the same. Putin, having signed the ceasefire agreement with Turkey, stated that the Russian military would scale down its presence in Syria, but he didn’t say how many troops and weapons would be withdrawn. It appears, both USA and Russia do not vacate the land they occupy and as Putin may not withdraw his forces from Syria at least in the near future because most Russians resent the way the Soviet troops were given the march-back order by Gorbachev and now they don’t appreciate ay withdrawal from Syria. More importantly, Putin has asserted that Russia will continue “fighting international terrorism in Syria” and supporting the Assad Government. The terrorism plank offers Russia the right to stay in Syria as long as it wants. While the West had been critical of Russia’s aggressive acts in Syria during the last couple of years, there has been a drastic change with the signing of the peace treaty in Astana in January 2017. It is opined by some analysts including Vasily Maximov that Moscow’s intervention under the leadership of Putin in Syria has an important dimension and that Russia has succeeded in trying to boost its position in the Middle East and demonstrate its global stature while attaining leverage in negotiations with the West.

In fact Putin is aware that what is binding Russia and China together has been their shared interest in balancing the USA on global issues. Putin has succeeded in increasing convergence between Russia and China on many global issues during the past few years. It is significant that in December 2016 Putin displayed renewed interest in the long-delayed China-Russia highway across the Amur River by extending technical and financial assistance to it; it is to be completed by 2019 and will enhance trade relations. China is thirsty for energy and raw materials from Russia to fuel its economic growth. It needs to be stated that another major factor drawing them together is a mutual dependence because even as Russia, though superior to China in nuclear weapons, is no match as far as the Chinese conventional military weaponry is concerned. Russia’s Look-East policy subsequent to the conflict with Ukraine on the Crimean issue in 2014, which worsened Russia’s political and economic relations with Europe and the USA, was welcomed by Beijing and that was “an axis of convenience” as rightly stated by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre highlighting Russia-China relations.

Russia is also in recent years growing closer to Pakistan and this is a matter of anxiety, especially at a time that India is trying to isolate Pakistan in this region by supporting USA against funds meant for Pakistan. China is already a strong supporter of Pakistan and with the two major powers involving themselves with Pakistan; it is certainly not good news as far as India is concerned. Russia held its first ever joint military exercise with Pakistan days after the Uri terror strike in September 2016 in the Indian administered State of Jammu Kashmir and at the BRICS Goa Summit, India felt let down by Russia as Moscow did not support Delhi’s stand by publicly naming the Pakistan-based “terror outfits”, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, as opined by Sachin Parashar. It needs to be noted that one cannot deny that both Russia and Pakistan are opening a new era of strategic and political alliance. President Putin’s proposed visit to Pakistan in May of this year will witness the inauguration of the US $ 2 billion LNG North-South Pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, as reported in the International News by Noor Aftab. This is possibly intended by Putin who wants to enhance Russia’s presence and influence in South Asia.

All said and done, a steady drip of revelations regarding the Trump team’s communications with Russian officials is dismaying congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, leading to calls for a more intensive investigation into the circumstances and substance of these connections.   A report in The Washington Post notes that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice spoken with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign. In sworn testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions had appeared to say that no such conversations took place. Some Republican (GOP) members are now joining Democratic members in calling for Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the election, or even appoint a special prosecutor for an independent effort. For Trump administration officials, their deepening Russia problems are a frustration at best. White House is in a fix now as an investigation on the subject, something analogous to the Benghazi inquiry, ostensibly about a 2012 tragedy at a US outpost in Libya, turned up evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted government business on a private email service.

On the domestic front Putin enjoys support and popularity by over 80 per cent of the population. Even as there are some Opposition parties and political leaders, including Alexei Navalny who proposes to contest in the presidential election against Putin, he has made sure that no political Opposition exists to challenge his authoritarian rule. It is worth noting that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has boosted Putin’s popularity at home even as there is strong opposition in the West. Russians constitute a substantial portion of the population in Crimea which has helped in the referendum held for the annexation. Russia claims that all legal processes were in place for that purpose.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on December 1, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the country is unified like never before and is fully capable of achieving its strategic economic and geopolitical goals. Speaking at the Defence Ministry on December 22, 2016 Putin asserted that Russia’s military is now stronger than any possible attacker but must be prepared to adjust plans to neutralise the potential threats to the country.

Observations

It is difficult to imagine normalization of US-Russian relations, either in a traditional sense or on some new, yet unarticulated basis, until the mystery of the president’s personal attitudes toward Putin and whatever background they represent are clarified and laid to rest. It is difficult to disprove a negative, to prove that something that didn’t happen didn’t happen. But the only known way to do that is to turn over every rock, not only where Trump is concerned, but also regarding the several individuals close to him who have dabbled in Russia in recent years. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Unfortunately, one of the rocks that must be overturned has to do with Trump’s taxes, and that seems an immovable stone wall.

For US presidents, no single foreign policy challenge is more contentious, or crucial, than getting Russia right. Under President Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats have embraced diametrically opposing views on how to handle President Vladimir Putin. Both seem to have got it wrong. Resisting Russian intimidation should be more than a campaign slogan. While almost no one wants a return to the Cold War, a world in which Russian hegemony is unrestrained increases the chance of global conflict.

For Trump officials, their deepening Russia problems are a frustration at best. Many of their attempts to get past the controversy end up feeding it – witness their attempt to enlist the FBI to knock down a previous New York Times story about administration/Russia connections. That only produced more headlines on the subject. In that context, an independent prosecutor could turn the probe into something analogous to Benghazi – much more difficult for the subject of the investigation to limit in time or subject. Remember that the Benghazi inquiry, ostensibly about a 2012 tragedy at a US outpost in Libya, turned up evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted government business on a private email service.

Perhaps a new approach to clearing the air and the deck where the Trump regime and Russia are concerned should be considered. Because of the role it played in the recent election, whatever investigations the FBI is undertaking regarding Russian connections may be suspect or discredited. Congressional inquiries, even with a Republican majority, will be partisan, politicized and media saturated. Consideration, therefore, might be given to a special panel composed of respected statesmen and stateswomen of both parties empowered to compel testimony under oath, inspect personal and classified documents (including tax returns), and issue a public report that either eliminates all suspicion of prior Trump-related activities in Russia or identifies areas of conflicting interest.

Otherwise, it seems inevitable that a cloud will linger for years to come regarding how relations between the current US government and the Putin government are being formulated, and whether in response to some prior arrangements or personal understandings. That will confuse whatever policies are adopted, either to strengthen U.S.-Russian ties, or draw lines against Russian actions in opposition to the interests of the United States and our allies.

Depending on what the investigations in the USA about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia find out, it could have very significant impacts on the Trump presidency and Trump’s ability to engage with Russia. There is harsh anti-America rhetoric in Russia. After this campaign, among a certain sector of the American population, there is harsh anti-Russia sentiment in the U.S. Overcoming that will be challenging.

Americas

Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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