By Morak Babajide-Alabi
The much-publicised meeting between Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America and the Russian President Vladimir Putin took place last week. The summit, held in the Finnish city of Helsinki was well publicised and much-anticipated. This is understandable.
The expectations were higher than that of the meeting between Trump and his erstwhile sparring partner Kim Jong Un of North Korea. We recall the meeting between the two in Singapore’s island of Sentosa, earlier last month. It was a historic meeting between two unpredictable leaders, who are susceptible to taking hasty decisions.
It was a big relief when the meeting was concluded with success. There had been a few dramas from both sides before the meeting. The North Koreans threatened to pull out, while Trump took a step further by calling off the meeting. No one was sure of what would happen until both leaders arrived in Singapore for the June 12 event.
At the meeting, the two leaders took to each other like long-lost father and son. Looking at them smiling and being diplomatic, you would not but see the change in attitudes of the two. At the end of the meeting though, analysts gave them thumbs down for lack of concrete commitments on both sides. There were no announcements on Kim’s plan towards human rights policies or his denuclearization programme.
These did not bother Trump. He is a man pleased with being seen as the new world peace champion than actually achieving any tangible diplomatic results. The President is an unconventional person who is trying hard to convince himself that he is on a mission to “change” history. He plans to achieve this by mending fences with traditional American enemies.
In doing this, he has also signalled that he is ready to sacrifice his country’s relationship with old-time allies to dine with the “devils”. There is no mark for guessing the reason for his sustained condemnation of old-time European allies and organisations. He is daring every other country or bloc to show Russia that America’s doors are open for new businesses from hitherto unexploited places.
Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has not recovered from the undiplomatic “kick from behind” that Trump delivered to her during his visit to Britain. Ask the German Chancellor Angela Merkel of her opinion of Trump; she will not have good words in his favour – not after his condemnation of Germany’s relationship with the Russians.
He had said: “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia.” A statement such as this has made Trump popular in some quarters and in others, he is a very irrational and “unPresident-like” individual. No matter how you view it, his opinions on these two female leaders are classic Trump.
Trump is the king of the unexpected. His outbursts, sometimes defying diplomatic reasoning, added to the “anything can happen” atmosphere that surrounded the Helsinki meeting. Putin, on the other hand, a former KGB official, is a cold and calculating leader who has an iron grip on his country. Rarely showing emotions, he is feared by his citizens, while leaders of other countries “admire” him from a distance.
Putin was re-elected for a fourth six-year term in March this year. It was not a controversy-free victory for President Putin as many opposition groups and individuals were alleged to have been denied their democratic rights. World leaders were cautious in congratulating Putin for the “electoral victory”. Remember, this was at the height of the scandal of the alleged sponsored poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain. All these did not bother Trump as he threw caution into the winds and congratulated Putin on his victory. This is despite suggestions from his national security advisers “not to congratulate” the Russian President.
Apparently, the foundation for the Helsinki meeting was laid after Trump’s congratulatory call as he later revealed that he told Putin that they would meet in “not too distant future” to discuss limiting a growing arms race, Syria and Ukraine. It took a few months before further details of the meeting were released. It was timed to coincide with Trump’s “working visit” to Europe.
Although there were high hopes, nobody had any idea of what the agenda was or how it would play out. The world was clear on the reason for the Trump/Jong Un meeting. It was to exploit the economic desperation of the North Korean leader to push him to give up his nuclear programme. Jong Un had no choice as the sanctions were hurting his country’s economy badly and he had nowhere else to turn to.
It was a bit different for the Russians. They are under the yoke of sanction, but you cannot say they are as desperate as the North Koreans. Rather, it was the Trump administration, for whatever reasons, that was so desperate to meet the strongman of Russia. His comments before, during and after the meeting have suggested that he needed the meeting more than the Russian President.
You would have thought Trump would be more cautious in his relationship with the Russians. He would prefer losing everything else, but not Putin. It does not matter to him if the world thinks otherwise. His Presidency is blighted by allegations of electoral interference by the Russians. No matter how much he tried to shake this off, it has just refused to go.
The relationship between Russia and the US is now defined by this allegation of interference in the internal democracy. Ironically, a few days before this meeting, 12 Russian nationals were indicted by the US Justice Department as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. They are accused of engaging in a “sustained effort” to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks.
As the meeting between the two was behind closed doors, no one has been able to confirm how strongly Trump felt when he asked Putin the question of interference. Going by his body language after the meeting and at the joint press conference, one can easily guess that he was not really as concerned as Americans back at home were. At a point, he suggested he would rather believe Putin over the US intelligence reports.
All said and done about this “historic” meeting, the Americans or the world at large are not better placed with the Russians than they were before Monday, July 16th. The consensus is that Russia is still a big threat to the world, no matter what Mr Trump or his handlers would want us to believe. The Russians are in control of happenings in Syria and to a large extent still acting behind the scenes while the dictatorial regime of Al Bashir Assad continues to kill innocent civilians.
As Putin remains unchallenged on his country’s activities in Ukraine, this will embolden him to take a step further. A seeming validation of Russia by Trump’s administration is nothing but a “peace agenda” taken too far. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth and makes one wonder if Putin truly has something on this American President. Come out, Trump, come out.
As written for the Diaspora Matters Column of Sunday Vanguard July 22, 2018.