US President Donald Trump had a strong hand to play in Russia, but didn't deliver and instead came across weak in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will Trump's reluctance to publicly stand up to Putin end up costing him?
What a whirlwind the past week has been for transatlantic relations. What started out as a shaky beginning to President Trump’s European tour at the NATO Summit, ended with one of the more astonishing moments in US presidential history with his first bilateral meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The press conference made for uncomfortable watching. After coming out (rightfully) swinging against many of his NATO allies over the issue of defense spending in Europe, President Trump looked meek standing next to the former KGB spy.
In Helsinki, President Trump missed multiple opportunities to hold President Putin accountable on the international stage. The major geo-political issues were glossed over. Trump seemingly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies regarding the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential elections—a position he has since rolled back on, sort of.
Instead of pressing Putin on his many indiscretions in Syria, Ukraine, Georgia or the streets of the UK, the world heard a lot about Hillary’s servers, Peter Strzok, and some ramblings about a “Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC".
Although it does not seem like anything major was conceded to Russia at the summit, it is also true to say that President Trump did not go to bat on any issue either.
Few will ever know what Trump did or did not raise privately, but with the world watching there was no defense whatsoever of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the fact that Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. In fact, throughout the whole press conference Trump did not mention the word “Ukraine” once.
There was no reminder that this week marks the 4th anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (popularly known as MH17) over the skies of eastern Ukraine leaving 298 innocent people dead – even though it is widely acknowledged that a Russian anti-aircraft system was responsible for this.
Having just arrived directly from the UK to meet with Putin, one would have thought that the Novichok nerve agent attacks, which have injured three and killed one left in England, would have been fresh in President Trump’s mind. Sadly, there was no mention of this, either, during the joint press conference.
Is Trump really "weak" on Russia?
Trump’s silence on these issues, and many others, was deafening.
What makes his disappointing performance in Helsinki so puzzling is that the policies coming out of the Trump administration on Russia have been the toughest of any president since Ronald Regan in the 1980s.
Early on, Trump traveled to Poland, a frontline state and former Warsaw Pact country, and delivered a powerful speech committing the US to NATO’s security guarantee. Around the same time, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Estonia, Montenegro and Georgia—three countries that have all suffered Russian interference or aggression—and delivered strong messages of US support.
After rightfully criticising Europeans for not spending enough on defense while the US was spending too much, Trump increased US spending on European defense in his first year by 40 percent compared with Obama’s last year in office.
He has sold lethal weapons, including the advanced Javelin anti-tank missile, to Ukraine and Georgia. In the case of Georgia, he also authorised the sale of the potent Stinger anti-aircraft missile. During Trump’s first year in office, the US also stepped up its air presence in the Baltic region.
In terms of economic sanctions against Russia, Trump has been equally tough. He has sanctioned almost 200 Russian oligarchs, senior government officials and organisations over connections to election meddling and cyber-attacks.
He closed two Russian consulates in Seattle and San Francisco, and expelled 60 Russian diplomats thought to be spies. This was almost double the number Obama expelled for election meddling in 2016 and more than Ronald Reagan’s expulsion of 55 Russian diplomats in 1986.
Trump’s opening salvo at the recent NATO summit was to attack Germany for going ahead with the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that will directly connect Russia to Germany. Again, not exactly a “weak on Russia” position.
The truth is that Trump went into the Helsinki meeting with a strong hand to play—he just failed to deliver it.
After the fallout, Trump now needs to take measures to reaffirm his support for NATO and the transatlantic community. He should continue with his tough policies against the Kremlin and tone down some of his more controversial rhetoric regarding Russia.
Finally, Trump should understand that as long as Vladimir Putin is in charge, Russia can never be a credible partner for the US. Since first coming to power in 1999, Putin has done nothing to suggest he can be trusted. In fact, he has spent a better part of two decades undermining America’s interests at almost every turn. George W. Bush learned this the hard way regarding Georgia. Barack Obama learned this the hard way regarding Ukraine.
Let’s hope that Donald Trump does not have to learn the hard way.
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