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The magical Putin hopes to perform with Trump in Helsinki

In July 2009, Barack Obama flew to Moscow for talks with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but convened a meeting with Vladimir Putin, who remained the country's most powerful figure in a brief political hibernation as Prime Minister. One morning, Obama and his entourage drove to Putin's residence in Novo-Ogarjowo, a wooded estate 20 miles outside the capital. The dissemination was wasteful, as Michael McFaul-Obama's chief advisor for Russia policy and later the US ambassador to Moscow writes in his memoir, "From Cold War to Hot Peace," the table being under the weight of various types of caviar and exotic eggs. "A waiter in a traditional nineteenth-century peasant dress took off his high leather boot and used it to whip up the fire in the samovar water for our tea," writes McFaul.

Before Obama could say much, Putin launched for a long time. He talks about America's misdeeds: how Washington, after the 9/1

1 attacks, rejected Russia's offer of aid, committed the deadly sin of the Iraq war and provoked political upheavals among Russia's neighbors. It was a story of grievances and frustrations, with Russia as a victim. Putin, writes McFaul, "knew how to tell a dramatic story, and for each vignette or confrontation, he told the president the date, place, and person who attended the meeting." The meeting was scheduled for 60 minutes, and " the US president had said nothing until the age of fifty. "

Trump will be in Helsinki on July 16. Putin is sure to start her bilateral session with a similarly offended and discursive talk, with Washington in the role of antihero, committing the sins of hubris, persuasion, and disrespect. (In some ways, Putin may not be so far off diagnosing some of the chronic pathologies of the US foreign policy establishment.)

Putin is likely to explain how the Obama administration abused and corrupted US-Russian relations in recent years Years, a tense period in which the two countries clashed over everything from Edward Snowden to Ukraine to US election blending. Given Trump's animus for Obama and his reflexive inclination to favor any policy that is the opposite of his predecessor, such a narrative could find a receptive audience. In fact, Trump has already shown in many respects that Putin cares most that he does not have to be very persuasive: he questioned the relevance of NATO assuming that the Crimea finally became Russian after all could be doubtful of Russia's interference in the presidential election that put him in office.

What does that mean for Putin's goals in Helsinki? On Wednesday, the day on which the details of the meeting were formally announced, I met Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Federation Council, Russia's House of Lords of Parliament. His position is not particularly influential, but it makes him a loyal and rather crystalline factotum of Kremlin politics. "Every day, Trump gets reports from the CIA, the NPC, the State Department, whoever, and tells him what Russia has done now, where it behaved badly: they poisoned someone here, they gave money there, and so he did a certain idea of ​​Russia and Putin, "Klimow told me. The meeting in Helsinki is an opportunity for Trump to "hear the other side, as in court, and Putin can explain why he did this or that, why this policy is necessary." Exotic eggs or not, Trump may well nod.

For months, Russia has not had much of a policy in dealing with the United States in the hope that it will not get worse – be it in the form of new sanctions or a direct military confrontation in Syria – and wait for a summit to come about comes. Much of the Russian political establishment is invested in the idea that Trump himself would like to improve relations with Russia, but is constantly encircled by Congress and a foreign policy bureaucracy of Washington that will not allow him to do so. As Russian officials see it, a personal meeting is an opportunity to overcome these intrusive bodies and make a direct appeal, an approach that fits the habits and beliefs of the Russian ruling elite – they understand and know how to deal with individuals fewer institutions with their amorphous power centers and internal control mechanisms.

The recent meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore was certainly instructive. Russian officials have noted it, said Andrei Kortunov, the director of Russia's International Affairs Council. Looking at the Singapore Summit, Putin saw that Kim was able to reduce the threat to himself at minimal cost, and is sure, "Am I worse or what?" Aside from Singapore, Trump has generally shown that he is both malleable and ignorant – an ideal combination for someone like Putin, who will surely impress Trump with details like those he rolled out for his meeting with Obama, such as the former Presidents told how the United States once passed Russia a piece of anti-terrorism intelligence. "He waved dramatically to the waiters who served us tea, leaned forward and told Obama that they had used that information to" liquidate "the terrorists, McFaul writes in his story." One can only imagine the joy of Trump, the would-be hard guy, when he hears such a story.

But what makes Trump the most understandable and attractive American interlocutor Putin ever had is something more fundamental: Trump's completely transactional view of politics. The primacy of interests over values ​​- or rather a rejection of the idea that the former might be relevant to the latter – reflects Putin's own view of the world. Klimow told me that past US presidents, Obama in particular, have been driven by the belief in the "universal virtue of the American system" and the idea that "the more states in the world accept and obey this system, the better." this "policy as an ideological-philosophical expansion." But Trump, he told me, sees politics as business. " With values ​​out of the way, everything is tradable.

Nobody in Moscow expects any great achievements from the summit yet; There is little hope that Trump, for example, will lift sanctions against Russia or formally recognize the Crimea. That's not the point – at least not yet. Putin's most central view is the symbolism of a bilateral summit, as a clear realization that the US attempts to isolate and marginalize Russia have failed. The high-profile meeting in Helsinki, which is certainly pompous on television, is an admission that Russia is a world power that can not be ignored and treated as equal. Klimow called this a "return to common sense" and an achievement in and of itself: "When you go from the abnormal to the normal, that's fine."

I heard something similar when talking to Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs and a prominent foreign policy commentator. "The lack of contact is a bit alarming," he said, noting that US and Soviet leaders, even in the most tense days of the Cold War, had active channels of communication that provided them with a basic understanding of the other side and the future maintained avoid accidental escalation. Adding to the discomfort with the almost complete absence of dialogue is that "the President of the United States, let's say, is not a standard character, it's a bit scary." Russian officials, including Putin's It has not yet managed to get Trump under control – they are no less confused than we others when he contradicts himself and his generals within days of the question of whether the US forces are coming Syria or indeed escalating military operations there. "Putin wants to understand what kind of person it is," Lukyanov said.

As for Putin and his closest circle, the Trump presidency has so far been full of promising statements, but unwelcome actions, be it in signing a new sanctions law, agreeing to deliver deadly weapons to Ukraine or launching rockets in Syria. The result of such an uncoordinated discrepancy between speech and action is that after a year and a half, the kind of spontaneous utterances that trigger such a political storm in the US are not taken so seriously in Moscow. For example, I could not find a knowledgeable expert or politician who paid serious attention to Trump's reported comments on the G-7 in Canada when he suggested that Crimea belong to Russia because most people speak Russian there. "It is now clear that Trump is a" boneless tongue "- a Russian proverb for a person who can say anything at all – Lukyanov has told me." It is not necessary to react. "

The content of The Helsinki Summit is expected to focus on talks on the war in Syria, Ukraine and possible arms control, the latter being a legal and technical agreement that is an obvious starting point for Putin and Trump's advisers. For political reasons, Trump will have to raise the issue of electoral interference, although he and Putin have an interest in keeping the conversation short and vague without addressing the peculiarities of Russian influence in 2016.

Several sources in Moscow have me In recent days, Putin said he may be ready to talk about election interventions that are either extremely narrow or incredibly broad On one hand, Putin may be ready to sign a joint statement in which both sides agree not to hack the other's electoral system. (That would leave all other forms of interference unaddressed.) On the other hand, Putin would like to argue for an explanation that speaks to sovereignty and noninterference, broadly speaking, with elections that are just one of the issues dealt with. The Russian side would interpret such an agreement as restricting the actions of institutions such as foreign-funded media and NGOs, which the Kremlin has long favored regime change. If Putin could persuade Trump to agree with such a statement, it would be considered a great victory in Moscow.

As sure as Putin is trying to manipulate Trump, he also knows that he has to deliver something that satisfies Trump's ego that he can sell home as a big triumph. The Kremlin will spend the next two weeks figuring out what that might be – a trivial thing that looks good while it's being sold on TV but carries little risk or expense. "Everyone knows Trump needs something he can interpret as a victory," Kortunov said. "But what does Russia have to offer?" He told me that the answer was not yet clear. "It will be a personal decision by Putin himself, possibly during the meeting itself."

A historical weakness of the Putin system is that it can not move backwards: it has no ability to acknowledge mistakes or abandon counter-productive policies. This is partly a matter of habit and sloth, but also a function of belief. As Vladimir Frolov, foreign policy columnist at Republic, a Russian news and political side, explained, Putin and his advisors are narrowed by the certainty that "any course correction will lead to a major capitulation". The result is that it is very difficult for Russia to make any modest, otherwise sensible adjustments to its policies, be it in Syria or Ukraine or in its relations with the United States. Over time, according to Frolov, this has led to a kind of "magical thinking": Putin and his fellows somehow think they can "reverse the trend without making meaningful adjustments in their course." Helsinki will show if they are in Trump have found a US president who makes the magic real.

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