Considering the toxic Russophobic atmosphere nurtured by the Beltway establishment, the first meeting between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin last Friday went reasonably well. Contrary to the mainstream media pack’s predictions and predictable post mortems, there were no “winners” or “losers.” The encounter was not perceived by its principals in terms of zero-cum game. It was a businesslike encounter between two grownups and their foreign ministers.
It is a good thing that the meeting did not include various staffers and advisors. The danger of leaks was thus eliminated, the setup was more conducive to candor. In the end it went on for over two hours, much longer than either side had anticipated, and covered a broad range of topics. For all their differences of temperament and background, Trump and Putin both understand that the business of U.S.-Russian relations is too serious to be subjected to the Deep Staters’ shenanigans or to the ukase of corporate media commentariat. Their initial agreements, notably on Syria, may not look earth-shattering. It is significant that they were reached in the first place.
On the subject of Russia’s alleged meddling in last year’s election, the two sides’ accounts of what was said may differ in detail but not in substance: it is time to move on, rather than litigate the past. We do not know whether Trump actually accepted Putin’s denials of interference (according to Sergei Lavrov), or simply acknowledged them without prejudice (according to Rex Tillerson, who also emphasized the two leaders’ “positive chemistry”).
Either way, he was just going through the motions. It is obvious that Donald Trump does not believe the establishmentarian narrative on Russian hacking, and he does not want to be bound by it. A day earlier in Poland he gave notably tepid support to the assertion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election process: “I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows; nobody really knows for sure.”
On the other side, it is noteworthy that Putin effectively put his credibility on the line by giving Trump his personal assurances that there had been no meddling. Next March he will be duly reelected to another six-year term, probably his final. He will therefore need to develop and maintain a solid relationship with Trump until at least January 2021, and possibly even until 2024. If various ongoing investigations in the U.S. produce credible evidence of official Russian interference, that would deal a fatal blow to the relationship of trust which Putin hopes to establish with his American counterpart; it would also make the Russian president look foolish. Putin’s readiness to disregard that possibility indicates his confidence that, in reality, no such evidence exists.
On balance, both the most surprising and the most important outcome of the meeting was the ceasefire agreement covering southwest Syria, which came into effect at noon local time on Sunday. With this agreement, for the first time since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the United States has become a party to a formal accord to reduce violence. Russia is already working with Turkey and Iran to establish four “de-escalation zones” elsewhere in the country. According to Lavrov, the ceasefire would be supervised by Russian military police “in coordination with the Jordanians and Americans.” This implies de facto acceptance by the United States of Russia’s military presence in Syria as legitimate and acceptable. Furthermore, Tillerson hailed the agreement as proof that the U.S. and Russia were able to work together “to de-escalate the areas and the violence, once we defeat ISIS.”
In view of the danger of mission creep in Syria, which appeared real only a week ago, the Hamburg accord is more important than its specific clauses. Syria is the most dangerous hotspot in today’s world, with great potential for sudden escalation. Even a limited agreement is preferable to the breakdown in communication between Washington and Moscow, which seemed imminent in the aftermath of the shooting down of a Syrian jet three weeks ago. If Syria is stabilized, then further agreements may follow on cybersercurity or on a joint approach to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The United States and Russia do not have any insurmountable geopolitical differences or existential causes of conflict. They can and should establish normal, friendly relations, based not only on diplomatic realism but also on civilizational and cultural proximity which is greater than many Americans realize. For different reasons, our liberal postmodernists and neoconservative hegemonists want to prevent any such rapprochement. Their unholy alliance epitomizes “the Swamp.” It is scandalous and deeply detrimental to American interests.
Donald Trump’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin shows that he has not completely succumbed to the Swamp’s pressure, which has been relentless. He seems to understand that we need to reestablish a pragmatically ordered hierarchy of American global interests, in other words to reaffirm rationally adduced raison d’etat which would make détente with Moscow possible. Last Friday’s meeting offers a glimmer of hope that a new start in U.S.-Russian relations is still possible, regardless of what the New York Times, CNN, John McCain or Marco Rubio say. For that President Trump deserves credit.
[Image: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0]]