At the G20 Summit that took place in Hamburg on 7-8 July, Presidents Putin and Trump met on at least three occasions. Two of them were rather typical for this kind of event, the third not at all.
The first was not really a meeting, just a handshake at the opening session. The second saw the Russian and American Presidents holding a bilateral. As is typical of this kind of event, the two leaders were seconded by their respective foreign ministers and supported by their interpreters. The meeting lasted over 120 minutes, which is long for a bilateral, even for one that relies on translation.
But it is the third encounter that is of the greatest interest. On or around 14 July, it was confirmed that there had been a previously unannounced additional meeting in Hamburg between Trump and his Russian counterpart.
This was a “pull-aside” that occurred during a social event for the G20 leaders. Normally, something like this lasts ten minutes at most, but on this occasion, it went on for an hour or so. What is more, the only other person party to the conversation was an interpreter of the Russian Federation.
One could argue that Trump chose this format to prevent the serial leaking that has characterized his presidency. In fact, the leaks point to the frustrations within the White House about the President’s values, methods and prospects. The serial departures of White House staff point in this direction.
Beyond that, the Hamburg meeting has raised important security issues.
First, there is no record of what was said or agreed. The Russian side can say of this what they will. So. for that matter, can the Americans. This creates space for misunderstandings, blackmail and subterfuge.
Second, the meeting may have provided an opportunity for Putin and Trump to exchange ideas about their ongoing collaboration without any of the political debate and oversight that foreign and security policy are normally subjected to in a mature democracy.
So, since the meeting, the US has announced that it is ending support to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and that it is no longer pressing for Assad to step down anytime soon. You must ask yourself just how this turn has registered with America’s Allies, both the longstanding ones and those that might be looking to Washington now and into the future for its support.
Something similar may have recently happened in American domestic politics. On 19 July, US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a very early supporter of the Trump candidacy, was attacked by the US President for having recused himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to suborn the US Presidential election. Sessions said he was not about to resign. Two days later, there appeared incriminating information about an as yet unreported meeting between Sessions and then Russian Ambassador Kisliyak to the effect that the Attorney General had failed to acknowledge as part of his security vetting process. The incriminating information was apparently intercepted by US intelligence operators – perhaps, but they may have had more than a little help from their confrères in Moscow.
In huddling in Hamburg with the Russian President for an hour in full view of America’s more important traditional Allies, Trump may have also wanted to send the message that his link to Putin was more important than America’s ties to its historical allies and their more than seventy-year track record of cooperation.
If the latter was Trump’s game, this was probably not the first time that he played it. At a NATO meeting in Brussels in May, Trump seems to have pushed out of the way the Prime Minister of Montenegro to get to the front of the pack of NATO leaders for a photo-shoot. This came just a month after Montenegro became the 29th member of the Alliance.
My take is that this was not just an unmannered Yankee at work. It was a deliberate move, designed to send the signal to the Montenegrin population that their new NATO membership should not be taken too seriously. With his theatrics, Trump will have also wanted to send a message to other potential NATO members, but also to existing ones, to the effect that the US does not take seriously its security commitments under the Washington treaty.
This understanding of the incident has not received much play in Western Europe and North America but it was front-page news in Southeastern Europe, where the video introducing this blog went viral.
Trump’s shove came against the background of his speech at the May 2015 NATO meeting in Brussels, where he demonstrably failed to confirm the Article V joint security guarantee of the Washington Treaty. The American President would later commit to Article V but his failure to embrace the Allied security guarantee in Brussels meant that the damage had already been done.
Another way of interpreting this is to say that Trump is stupid and/or really doesn’t understand what the world is all about. Yet, you do not beat fifteen other Republican candidates for the party’s nomination and Hilary Clinton for the Presidency if you are a dummy. Trump needs to be taken seriously. He is one of a new generation of political leaders in many corners of the world that feel more comfortable with an authoritarian model of governance than with a democratic one.
And Russia’s role in all of this? Putin has been more than happy to use Trump to his advantage. Despite Russia’s military bravura, the Russian President presides over an authoritarian system that is running out of steam. He can, however, extend its “use-by” date if Western solidarity and transatlantic values fall apart. They are well on their way to doing so. Trump has been doing everything possible to abet this process. My sense is that Trump is on Putin’s payroll, for debts incurred – past, present or future- and/or being blackmailed for earlier transgressions.
We will learn about all this as the Mueller investigation goes forward, if it does indeed do so. In Trump’s America, this is also at risk.
The underlying issue is that America’s democracy has become dangerously dysfunctional. Its repair will require a major conceptual and political effort. It may now be too late for this to be effective any time soon. There will be global security repercussions.