Putin Played Trump Like a Fiddle at G20
Why would the Kremlin stop now?
By almost all accounts, President Donald Trump got played like a fiddle in his more than two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. It was clear from their opening press statements that both leaders really wanted to establish a good rapport. Putin said he was “delighted” to meet with Trump personally, and Trump said that he looked forward to “a lot of positive things happening.” But it was evident that most of the “positive things” in the meeting happened only to Putin, including Trump’s reported declaration that the two sides needed to “move forward” from the discussion of Russia’s interference in — and possible manipulation of — the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Whether Trump agreed with Putin’s assertion that Russia had not in fact interfered in the election, as the Russian side claimed, or merely agreed to put the issue behind him, one thing is painfully clear: The Trump administration appears to have no intention of imposing costs or consequences on Russia for carrying out one of the most brazen covert influence operations against the United States in its history.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s account, the two leaders didn’t see value in “re-litigating things from the past,” and Trump instead “focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement.” Even this admission sounds like a sugarcoated version of the actual discussion, given that only a day earlier in Warsaw, Poland, Trump said that Russia may not have been behind the attack at all. Indeed, Trump falsely implied that only four of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed that Russia was behind the cyberattack, reducing the Kremlin’s unprecedented assault on U.S. institutions to little more than a difference of opinion. In fact, however, all 17 agencies concurred with the assessment, which was coauthored by the four lead agencies with the primary responsibility for analyzing the matter: the Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency. Given Trump’s distortions of these facts, it would truly be surprising if his disagreement with Putin (if there was one at all) had been “intractable.”
The implications for U.S. national security are profound. Despite Trump’s equivocation, the U.S. intelligence community was and remains unanimous in its assessment that Russia directed a covert operation to skew the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. And while no one expected Putin to admit Russia’s culpability in directing this operation, Trump had an obligation to defend U.S. national security by informing Putin that he was aware of the Kremlin’s interference and that there would be consequences for Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. institutions. Particularly as evidence mounts that Russia’s intelligence services are continuing to collect information on U.S. electoral databases, systems, and procedures, a clear message to cease and desist (with consequences implied) was absolutely necessary to safeguard the integrity of future U.S. elections.
Instead, Trump appears to have been duped into the futile exercise of creating a joint U.S.-Russian working group on cybersecurity. The outcome of such a group is predictable: Experts will agree to disagree on what happened in the past and seek to develop some sort of code of conduct for the future. This is a well-worn Russian approach that promises to produce a document affirming the inadmissibility of interfering in the elections of other countries, perhaps together with a crisis communication channel in case of suspected interference. The problem is this: Russia has entered into a plethora of such agreements in the past, particularly in the area of arms control and confidence building, and yet none of these agreements have checked Russia’s violations of international norms or other countries’ sovereignty. For example, Russia is today violating the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Treaty on Open Skies, the Medvedev-Sarkozy ceasefire in Georgia, and the two Minsk agreements on Ukraine. The fact that these obligations are codified on paper is meaningless. Exhibit A is the U.S.-Russia working group on “Threats to and in the Use of Information and Communication Technologies,” established under the Obama-Medvedev Bilateral Presidential Commission, which sought to codify confidence-building measures in cyberspace.
According to Tillerson’s readout, Putin and Trump also agreed on the parameters of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria. At first glance, this seems like a promising development. Previous U.S.-Russian interagency talks in Amman at the working level, and between Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the ministerial level, had laid the groundwork for this agreement. But, as with previous U.S.-Russian attempts to agree on a ceasefire in Syria, it is not at all clear that words will translate into deeds. More troubling, however, is the fact that Putin no doubt capitalized on this agreement to try to entice Trump into broader cooperation against extremist groups in Syria. As his speech in Warsaw demonstrated the day before he met with Putin, Trump largely views the geopolitics of the Middle East through the prism of a conflict of civilizations in which the West is pitted against the rest. This simplistic and Manichean view provides a golden opportunity for Putin, who has long sought cooperation with the United States in Syria.
But such cooperation would be a disaster for the United States. While there is potentially some merit in pursuing an agreement with Russia on geographic deconfliction of operations in Syria — under which the United States would essentially agree to stay out of western Syria in return for Russia’s pledge not to interfere with counter-Islamic State operations in and around Raqqa — any actual coordination between United States and Russian forces on the ground or in the skies over Syria would implicate the United States in Russia’s toxic alliance with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Such “coordination” of operations — in addition to being prohibited by the National Defense Authorization Act — would have disastrous ramifications for U.S. policy in the Middle East and make the United States complicit in Russia’s widespread attacks on civilian targets across Syria. Furthermore, joint targeting of the Islamic State through intelligence sharing — as opposed to the current practice of waging parallel but separate operations — offers no significant advantage to U.S. commanders on the ground.
On Ukraine, it seems apparent that Putin hewed to his long-standing interpretation of the Minsk accords. He holds that Ukraine must first grant the Russian-occupied regions of the Donbass a “special status” akin to that of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and only following this political concession would Russia withdraw its troops and equipment from Ukraine. By contrast, almost all other countries (including Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) interpret the 2015 Minsk agreement as it is actually written, with the first three steps entailing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and full access for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to the occupied territories. Given Tillerson’s recent statements about the possibility of seeking a solution to the conflict outside of the Minsk framework, however, it is unlikely that either Trump or Tillerson would have insisted on this strict sequence of actions. Moreover, Foreign Minister Lavrov’s readout of the discussion echoes a comment he made only a few days earlier expressing the (absurd) view that Russia is merely a guarantor of the Minsk accords, and that Ukraine and the separatists are the only parties bound by their terms.
Despite the administration’s appointment of a highly capable diplomat (Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO) to serve as special envoy for Ukraine, no progress on this issue can be made so long as Moscow continues to shirk its obligations under the Minsk accords and cynically assigns responsibility for their implementation to its proxies. Indeed, it is likely that with the reciprocal appointment of envoys Russia will try to bury the Ukraine file in mid-level diplomatic talks while continuing to wage a simmering war using its proxies in eastern Ukraine, where some 100 Ukrainians have been killed this year alone. This is similar to the approach the Kremlin used following its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when Russia agreed to the establishment of the open-ended Geneva International Discussions, which continue to this day without any progress on the withdrawal of Russian troops. The bottom line here is that without significant leverage brought to bear against Moscow, no progress on resolving the Ukraine conflict will be possible.
On the burning problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it does not appear the two leaders made any progress either, with the Russian permanent representative at the U.N. having publicly questioned whether Pyonyang’s recent missile test involved an intercontinental ballistic missile at all. On this issue, what might appear to be overlapping interests in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula mask a great power competition in which the Kremlin actually relishes Pyonyang’s potential ability to undermine America’s extended deterrent in East Asia.
In sum, it does not appear that Trump got any concrete results out of his meeting with Putin, aside from the agreement on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria — but gave Putin everything he could have wished for by agreeing to move on from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election without further consequences. Thus undeterred, why would the Kremlin stop now?
Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTIEV/AFP/Getty Images