July 8, 2017
Effective Russian diplomacy meant that the first Trump-Putin summit though leading to no breakthroughs made important if limited progress on a number of topics whilst establishing a genuine connection between the two Presidents.
The single most important fact about the Trump-Putin meeting is that it went on for 2 hours, four times longer than planned. What was supposed to be a brief encounter on the sidelines of the G20 summit became a deep and animated conversation the two men didn’t want to end.
This is not wholly unexpected. The Russians before the meeting had signalled that the meeting would cover the full range of US-Russians relation. Since it is hardly possible that could be done in a meeting lasting no more than half an hour – especially one conducted through interpreters – they must have anticipated that it would go on for longer.
In addition Putin came to the meeting clearly looking for progress on three specific points, which I suspect the Russians communicated to the US through Secretary of State Tillerson some time before. These were (1) for a ceasefire in southern Syria; (2) for US involvement in the diplomacy Ukrainian conflict; and (3) for the establishment of a joint cyber security working group.
I do not know for a fact that it was the Russians who instigated the discussion of these three issues, though Tillerson has confirmed that it was they who proposed US involvement in the diplomacy to end the Ukrainian conflict. It is likely however that they were. To see why it is necessary to discuss these three issues in detail:
(1) southern Syria ceasefire
The conditions for a ceasefire in southern Syria are now favourable at least in theory, with ISIS driven out of most of southern Syria, and the US base at Al-Tanf effectively cut off by the Syrian army from fighting ISIS and left with nothing therefore to do.
Behind the ceasefire proposal must however be Russian concern about the effect of the recent US ‘warning’ of US action against Syria in the event of a further chemical attack.
No such chemical attack has happened, undoubtedly because the Syrian military never planned one. However, as many people have been pointing out – including myself, but most especially Russia’s redoubtable foreign ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova – the US ‘warning’ is all but a green light to Al-Qaeda in Syria to stage a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in order to get the US to attack Syria for them.
That is a risk the Russians will be anxious to reduce or head off so far as possible. Moreover the US military – which as has become clear has no wish to be dragged into a possible shooting war with the Russians in Syria – will share this concern.
The proposed ceasefire in southern Syria appears to be at least in part intended to address this problem.
The most dangerous area of potential conflict between the Syrian army and the US’s Syrian ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies, and therefore by definition the most likely flashpoint in any future conflict between the US and the Russian military, is southern Syria. The dangers from a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in this area is therefore especially high.
Though a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in this area can never be ruled out, all the more so as ceasefires in Syria are never fully honoured, some degree of ‘deconfliction’ in this area might reduce this possibility.
Nothing anyway is lost by trying, and from a Russian point of view a ceasefire in this area is desirable anyway, if only because it reduces the danger of the US interfering in the Syrian military’s advance on Deir Ezzor, and allows the Syrian military to concentrate more of its troops on fighting ISIS there.
As for the US, not only is the US military probably as anxious to reduce the risk of a ‘false flag’ attack in this area as the Russians are, but the Syrian advance to the Iraqi border has effectively ended the rationale for the US military being there anyway.
So far as one can tell the US deployment to Al-Tanf was intended to provide a base for an advance by the US’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies from this area into central and eastern Syria, obviously to defeat ISIS there but also to deny this large territory to the Syrian military. With the US’s Al-Tanf base and the large Jihadi enclave around it now however surrounded by the Syrian army, the US’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies cannot advance north into central and eastern Syria unless the US military is prepared to attack the Syrian military on their behalf. Since that would certainly lead to a clash with the Russians – something the US military is anxious at all costs to avoid – this plan is no longer workable.
It therefore makes sense for the US to withdraw from this area, using a ceasefire as cover.
To be clear, that does not mean the US is quitting Syria. It means that the US is giving up on its southern front so that it can better focus on its northern front, where the strong support the US has from its Kurdish allies means that its presence is already much greater.
Both the US and Russia therefore had good reasons to agree to a ceasefire in southern Syria. It is likely the Russians proposed it – as they have proposed most of the ceasefires in Syria – but the US would had good reasons to agree.
The result is the agreement for a ceasefire in southern Syria that came out of the Trump-Putin meeting. Since it frees more Syrian troops to fight ISIS and reduces the danger of a clash between the US and Russian militaries in Syria, it is an unequivocally good thing.
(2) US involvement in the Ukrainian conflict
The Russians consider the US largely responsible for the Ukrainian conflict, which they see as caused by a US strategy to separate Ukraine from Russia so as to draw it into NATO.
However from a Russian point of view it now makes sense to involve the US – or perhaps more accurately the Trump administration – in the negotiations to settle the Ukrainian conflict.
Those negotiations are supposed to be based on the Minsk Agreement of February 2015. The negotiations have however being going nowhere because the Maidan regime in Ukraine is adamantly opposed to implementation of the terms of the Minsk Agreement, which would permanently end its attempt to create a monocultural ethnicist Ukraine distanced as far as possible from Russia and anchored in NATO and Europe.
In his comments about Ukraine made during his press conference at the end of the G20 summit Putin set it all out
The interests of Russia and Ukraine, the interests of the Russian and Ukraine people – and I am fully and profoundly confident of this – coincide. Our interests fully coincide. The only thing that does not coincide is the interests of the current Ukrainian authorities and some of Ukraine’s political circles. If we are to be objective, of course, both Ukraine and Russia are interested in cooperating with each other, joining their competitive advantages and developing their economies just because we have inherited much from the Soviet era – I am speaking about cooperation, the unified infrastructure and the energy industry, transport, and so on.
But regrettably, today our Ukrainian colleagues believe this can be neglected. They have only one ”product“ left – Russophobia, and they are selling it successfully. Another thing they are selling is the policy of dividing Russia and Ukraine and pulling the two peoples and two nations apart. Some in the West like this; they believe that Russia and Ukraine must not be allowed to get closer in any areas. That is why the current Ukrainian authorities are making active and successful efforts to sell this ”product.“
These facts are also well known by all the other parties to the Ukrainian conflict. The difficulty is that the person who has assumed largely by default the biggest role in the West’s diplomacy to end the conflict – Chancellor Merkel of Germany – is far too publicly committed to supporting the Maidan regime to do anything about it.
The result is that the negotiations are stuck and are going nowhere.
The Obama administration, which was the US administration during whose time the Maidan coup in Ukraine took place, was also publicly committed to supporting the Maidan regime. Since it was the Obama administration’s top officials – Biden, Nuland and Pyatt – who were responsible for the Maidan coup happening in the first place it could hardly be otherwise.
There was therefore little realistic possibility of the Obama administration ever applying sufficient pressure either on the Maidan regime or on Angela Merkel to have the Minsk Agreement implemented, even though there are some indications that some Obama administration officials lobbied for it.
The Trump administration by contrast comes to the Ukrainian conflict with an essentially clean slate. Secretary of State Tillerson has openly expressed his skepticism about the value of committing US tax dollars to supporting the Maidan regime in Ukraine, and Donald Trump himself has shown little interest in the issue. That at least in theory ought to make it easier for the Trump administration to change course.
From the Russian point of view it anyway always makes better sense to talk directly to the organ grinder rather than his monkey, so opening a direct channel to Washington to talk about Ukraine – sidelining Angela Merkel – makes complete sense.
Trump and Tillerson were receptive to the Russian idea, and a US special envoy – Kurt Volker, a US career diplomat brought out of retirement – has been appointed to fulfil this role. In announcing the appointment Tillerson confirmed that the initiative for it came from the Russians
At the request of President (Vladimir) Putin, the United States has appointed … a special representative for Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker
Though Ukrainian President Poroshenko has welcomed the move (what else can he do?) some ex-Obama officials have already reacted sourly to Tillerson’s admission that the US’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine was made at Putin’s suggestion
Julie Smith, a former Pentagon official who worked on European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, praised the choice of Volker as Ukraine envoy, but said she was puzzled at Tillerson’s statement that he filled the position at Putin’s request.
“So Ukraine didn’t matter enough to this administration to have them appoint a special envoy in the first place?” said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It was a bizarre word choice.”
Whether the appointment of a US special envoy for Ukraine really will change anything, and whether it will cause Merkel to be sidelined, remains to be seen. However it is the first instance I know of when the US has agreed to do something in relation to the Ukrainian conflict after Russia proposed it.
(3) cybersecurity working group
The Western media has made huge play about the fact that Donald Trump ‘challenged’ Putin over the claims that Russia hacked the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers during the US election campaign.
Given the pressure Trump is under he had no choice, a fact known to Putin, who would have taken the ‘challenge’ philosophically.
Putin and the Russians have however -and with some skill – sought to move beyond this issue and to turn it as far as they can to their advantage by getting the US to agree to the setting up of a joint working party on cybersecurity.
In his press conference at the end of the G20 summit Putin explained it this way
But what is important is that we have agreed that there should not be any uncertainty in this sphere, especially in the future. By the way, I mentioned at the latest summit session that this directly concerns cyberspace, web resources and so on.
The US President and I have agreed to establish a working group and make joint efforts to monitor security in the cyberspace, ensure full compliance with international laws in this area, and to prevent interference in countries’ internal affairs. Primarily this concerns Russia and the United States. We believe that if we succeed in organising this work – and I have no doubt that we will – there will be no more speculation over this matter.
The background to this is that at as Putin disclosed to Oliver Stone during the Putin Interviews the US has previously refused to discuss cybersecurity with the Russians.
Obviously this was because of US confidence of US superiority in this area.
What Putin and the Russians have done is used the Russiagate allegations – which they deny – to get the US to accept that this is an issue the US also needs to talk about. As a result the Russians have persuaded the US to agree to something they had previously refused to do: talk about cybersecurity through the setting up of a joint working group to discuss the issue.
This is not the start of a negotiation on a future international cybersecurity treaty governing the use of cyber weapons, something Putin told Oliver Stone the Russians had previously proposed to the US but which the US refused to consider. However Putin’s words show that the Russians hope it might eventually evolve into something like that. The point is that from the Russian point of view it is real if only limited progress to have got the US at last talking about this issue.
One particular point that the Russians will undoubtedly have had in mind when they proposed the setting up of this joint working party is the recent confirmation that the Obama administration in the last weeks of its existence ordered the NSA to plant ‘cyber bombs’ in Russia’s infrastructure.
Apparently work on planting these ‘cyber bombs’ is still going on.
The Russians are certain to bring up the question of these ‘cyber bombs’ in the discussions of the joint working party. It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the US will be.
The first Trump-Putin summit, with Trump both inexperienced and under severe pressure at home, was never going to be an easy summit. However it is striking that Russian diplomacy still managed to use this unpromising summit to make progress – however tentative and limited – on three important issues in a way that works towards achieving Russia’s objectives.
The agreements made, though very limited in scope, are still from the Russian point of view useful, whilst the Russians seem to have taken care to pitch their proposals to be within the range of what President Trump could agree to.
As for President Trump, he is to be commended for having accepted these proposals so quickly and so readily. Doing so was as much in the US’s interests as in Russia’s interests.
This is how diplomacy is done. Putin and the Russians in Hamburg gave Trump a class in how to do it, and he came out well, far better in my opinion than Barack Obama ever did. That holds promise for the future.
In all respects this was a far better summit than the US-Chinese summit at Mar-a-Lago, which the Chinese sought too early, and which the inexperienced Trump was unsure how to host.
For the rest, it seems that Trump and Putin genuinely got on with each other.
The most important fact about the summit as I said previously was that it went on for so long. Usually when a meeting goes over time in this way it is either because there is a row or because those involved discover that they have a lot to talk about and are able to say it to each other.
This summit was clearly of the second sort. It seems that Melania tried at one point to hurry the two men along, but they preferred to go on talking to each other even if that meant delaying later meetings.
As regards personal relations, I believe that they have been established. This is how I see it: Mr Trump’s television image is very different from the real person; he is a very down to earth and direct person, and he has an absolutely adequate attitude towards the person he is talking with; he analyses things pretty fast and answers the questions he is asked or new ones that arise in the course of the discussion. So I think that if we build our relations in the vein of our yesterday’s meeting, there are good reasons to believe that we will be able to revive, at least partially, the level of interaction that we need.
Coming from Putin – the most experienced leader in the world today and an acknowledged master of diplomacy who is known for saying it as it is – the highlighted words are high praise.
In summary this was a genuinely successful summit, producing more of substance than most people expected, and promising well for the future.