Trump and Putin: A missed opportunity (to put it mildly)

On Monday July 17, US President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a highly-publicised summit in Helsinki. Roundly criticised by Republicans and Democrats alike for the meeting, and facing international condemnation for the tone taken during the press conference afterwards, Trump appears to have made a colossal blunder on the world’s stage. Watching the events closely were the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, who have good reason to continue to fear the Russian bear; with Putin having shown no restraint in meddling in politics in the region and sending troops across borders if he so desires, a US-Russian rapprochement would be a terrible blow for the region. What ramifications then does the meeting actually have for future US-Russian relations, and in particular, for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe?

As Zhou Enlai famously (and likely erroneously) remarked about the French Revolution, it is too early to tell the full impact of Trump’s meeting with Putin. One point that needs to be noted from the outset is that much of the hysteria emanating from Trump’s political opponents on the left is not driven by a sober calculation of American interest but is driven solely by politics. Throughout the Obama administration, American policy towards Russia was far less robust than it has been under Trump and, it can be argued, set the stage for the re-ascendance of Russia as a regional power. The number of Russia-friendly policies pursued by Obama was staggering, including cancelling missile defence for Central and Eastern Europe and publicly proclaiming a “reset” and then standing idly by while Russia annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, had a Russian brigade shoot down a civilian airliner, and encouraged the use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria’s bloody conflict. Worse still was when Obama actively worked in Russia’s favour, such as personally blocking the sale of arms to Ukraine to defend itself from the Russian invasion, a policy which had broad bipartisan support in the US but was denied solely due to Obama. While Obama apologists such as former Ambassador Michael McFaul have been vocal about Trump’s behaviour, they have been far more revisionist when it comes to their own role in abetting Russia’s foreign adventurism.

Red lines

Beyond policy, the perception of Obama’s weakness on Russia was also omnipresent, from the “red line” in Syria that never materialised to Obama’s “hot mic” moment where he promised Dmitri Medvedev “flexibility” to the now-infamous lambasting of Mitt Romney’s prescient statement that Russia was a geopolitical foe. Emboldened by the withdrawal of American leadership throughout much of the world, Putin wholeheartedly seized the opportunities that Obama offered up. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Putin publicly stated that he preferred Obama to Romney in 2012, an obvious endorsement if there ever was one.

Under Trump, the US has corrected course somewhat in terms of policy, and in fact has strengthened the American stance towards Russia’s geopolitical maneuvering. Most prominently, Trump has green-lighted the sale of weaponry to Ukraine, a policy which puts Russian regular troops at risk in their occupied territories in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, many of Trump’s statements regarding NATO, which caused such consternation in Western Europe, were done precisely to force laggard countries into spending their agreed-upon share on their military; a strengthened NATO with European countries pulling their fair share can only work to Putin’s detriment. US special forces also had a direct clash with Russian mercenaries in Syria in February, with American troops reportedly decimating the Russians without a single casualty incurred. Finally, in just April of this year, Trump sought to strengthen the milquetoast sanctions on Russia from his predecessor, targeting Russian oligarchs and officials for their “malign activity” worldwide. All of these moves signal a much tougher American policy towards Russia, one that would be welcomed in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, where Trump deviates from other US Presidents is that he has unmoored American policy towards Russia from American principles, and this is where the summit becomes highly problematic. Trump has been on record for years stating of his personal admiration for Putin, perhaps the most abhorrent part of Trump’s quirks towards Russia, and he pointedly refuses to criticise Russian human rights abuses in public (often drawing moral equivalence between US mistakes and Russian policies). During the summit, Trump could have pointedly called out Putin for politically-motivated murders and detentions (including Ukrainian political prisoner Oleh Sentsov), pressed for admission of guilt in the downing of MH17 almost four years to the day, or made clear that the US will not stand for Russian meddling in foreign elections. Unfortunately, as far as we know, none of this happened, and Trump instead appeared to accept Putin’s assurances that Russia “never” interfered with American elections. Rather than have an “evil empire” moment or imploring Russia to change its ways, Trump offered Putin a stage and validated some of Putin’s most egregious lies.

So what does this mean for Central and Eastern Europe? The region has seen its own turn towards Russia in recent years, with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has led the way in rehabilitating Russia as a possible partner and Czech President Miloš Zeman one of the few politicians supporting Russia outright. Even where leaders have not been explicitly pro-Putin, there has been a surge in executive-centred populism which mimics Putin’s own strategies: Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has found herself embroiled in controversy for her seeming embrace of fascist symbols and imagery, and even Poland’s ostensibly anti-Russia Law and Justice Party has sought to undermine judicial independence and ensure that it retains its grip on power. As the region learned painfully from 1945 to 1989, however, these self-styled homegrown autocrats would likely be expendable if Russia were to send tanks across the border, and thus much of the posturing done by Central European politicians now seems to be a cover for expanding their own power.

Room for damage

Realistically, the worries on what Trump could actually offer Putin are overblown, but there still is room for damage: Trump could water down sanctions in order to reach compromise in Syria, he could push for repeal of the Magnitsky Act (or, more farfetched, cooperate with Putin in punishing the Act’s creator, Bill Browder), and, most alarmingly, he could recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Indeed, if Trump were to actually cut a deal with Russia and ease sanctions, it would be a disaster for Ukraine but there could be little effect elsewhere in the region so long as American military strength remained. Indeed, this may be the worry in Kyiv, that Ukraine will be sacrificed for broader geopolitical goals.

In reality, we do not know what happened behind closed doors during the Trump-Putin summit, but the fact that there is even a possibility that Trump has offered concessions to Putin is what has worried the foreign policy establishment and Central and Eastern Europe.  If Trump can continue a stronger and more robust policy towards Russia, then the caterwauling of his political enemies will merely expose them as the political opportunists that they are. The ideal situation for the region (and indeed the world) would be for Trump to equalise his tough policies with tough talk, pushing Russia on its human rights violations and backing off on praising the little dictator every chance he gets. Unfortunately, the events of this week show that Central and Eastern Europe may need to remain satisfied with tough policies and the presence of American troops, and hope that Trump takes a summer vacation from Twitter.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 

About the author

Christopher A. Hartwell

Christopher A. Hartwell

Christopher A. Hartwell is Professor of Financial Systems Resilience at Bournemouth University (UK), Professor of International Management at Kozminski University (Poland), and fellow and former President of CASE-Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. He is also the author of Two Roads Diverge: The Transition Experience of Poland and Ukraine (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Institutional Barriers in the Transition to Market (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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