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18 July 2018updated 21 Jul 2018 10:36am

Putin and the wrecking ball

It caused anger and unease across the West, but the meeting between the Russian president and Donald Trump was not as substantively “historic” as its protagonists may have hoped.

By John Bew

Contrary to expectations, Vladimir Putin was not an overbearing presence at the 2018 World Cup. And yet it did not take a video assistant referee to spot the clear handball at the end of his joint press conference with Donald Trump that followed their summit in Helsinki. Their encounter caused anger and unease across much of the US and Europe but was not as substantively “historic” as its protagonists may have hoped.

Having waved away questions about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Putin produced a Fifa match ball, which he tossed into the hands of his counterpart. “The ball is now in your court,” he quipped, cracking a wry smile.

In a pre-Trumpian age, this Delphic comment might have been pored over by analysts seeking to unpack its diplomatic intent. The Russian president likes a stunt, from turning up hours late for appointments with foreign dignitaries to once bringing a dog along to a meeting with the cynophobic German chancellor, Angela Merkel. This one failed to hit the target with the American press corps, however, who were more focused on what was coming from the mouth of their own wrecking ball of a president.

Try as he might, Trump cannot escape the lingering odour of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference: just days before the summit, the justice department indicted 12 suspected Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic party emails.

Asked if he had raised the matter, Trump appeared to put more faith in the denials of Putin – disclaiming any involvement – than his own intelligence agencies. Senator John McCain, the symbol of the old Republican establishment, called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” and the former CIA director John Brennan went so far as to describe Trump’s performance as “nothing short of treasonous”.

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One can only imagine the feeling of impending doom that envelops Trump’s staff when he begins to veer off script. From time to time, the president stumbles on an uncomfortable truth: that burden-sharing in Nato is imbalanced, or that US-Russian relations could be improved. Ryan Evans, editor of the leading national security website, War on the Rocks, speaks of the tension between “Trumportunities” and “Trumptastrophes”. The former refer to the fact there are “perennial problems in US foreign policy – such as relations with Moscow – that an outsider president would be uniquely well-placed to solve”. Repeatedly, however, the president’s inherent character flaws mean that everything becomes a crisis and common ground crumbles wherever he steps.

Part of the problem is Trump’s tendency to lurch from one issue to the next. It was after his summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore that his staff were told to fast-track the long-anticipated meeting with Putin – tacking it on to the end of his visit to Europe – with just two weeks’ notice.

“Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life,” Trump said confidently. In truth, his team – including anti-Putin hawks such as the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the new national security adviser, John Bolton – were left scrambling to keep up. (Before entering the White House, Bolton had called Putin’s meddling in American democracy “a true act of war”.) Reportedly, there was not even time for “a principals meeting” of the National Security Council, bringing together all the key foreign policy officials to agree upon a detailed policy plan for the summit. Once again, as in Singapore, the president insisted on keeping his advisers from the room for the first two hours.

Such is the destabilising effect of Trump that not a week goes by without a new lamentation about the death of the Western alliance. And yet as the US president returns home from his three-stop European tour (Brussels, Britain and the Baltic) to a domestic political storm, there will be some in Europe, including within our own buffeted Foreign Office, emitting a sigh of relief.

Trump arrived with dire warnings about the future of Nato because of the failure of Europeans to take their own defence seriously enough. Yet Nato has emerged from a turbulent few months in better health than many predicted. Significantly, as the alliance wobbles towards its 70th birthday next year, the US president has started to claim credit for keeping it alive. On arrival in Helsinki, he commented that the meeting with Nato allies was “a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love”. The organisation, he said, had “never been stronger than it is today”.

For all the furore over the issue of Russian election interference, there was no revolution in American foreign policy announced in Helsinki. The last four US presidents have met Putin – each proclaiming a desire to improve relations – although this is the first such meeting since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. And there was little in the way of what Bolton called “concrete deliverables” on the table.

Does Donald Trump have the attention span – or the political capital – to pursue the major reset in US-Russian relations that he desires? His suggestion that Russia should be readmitted into the G8, or nods of admiration to Putin’s strength, may cause consternation among American allies but they are a long way short of a coherent overall strategy.

Helsinki passed with little discussion of the mooted “grand bargain”, whereby Putin’s annexation of Crimea would be forgiven and sanctions lifted, in return for Moscow curtailing Iran’s growing presence in Syria. Nor is it clear that it is in Putin’s gift to deliver such a deal, given the extent to which Iranian influence has become embedded on the ground. For the moment, then, the eyes of the Western world remain fixated on the Trumpian baby blimp, but it is being kept in the sky with a considerable amount of hot air.

John Bew is professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London and a New Statesman contributing writer

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This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact