Paul Goble argues that the first phone call between the new US president, Donald Trump, and Russian president Vladimir Putin was a victory for the latter, while Trump got very little in return.
In advance of talks with a foreign leader, the sides often employ one of two strategies to ensure that the outcome can be presented in the ways that they want. Thus, one side may suggest no real breakthrough is possible, thus lowering expectations. Or it may suggest something many oppose could happen in order to get credit when it doesn’t.
Both these tactics were on display in advance of the telephone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on 28 January, with the former leaking that sanctions might be lifted when that wasn’t going to happen overnight and the latter signalling via his foreign ministry that any talks with the Americans would be difficult.
That is all in the way of such events, but it has the unfortunate effect of leading some to misread what in fact happened. Thus, in this case, because Trump didn’t end sanctions, many in the US are delighted because what they feared most didn’t happen and even allowing themselves to believe that their opposition to such a step played a role.
In order not to fall into that well-prepared trap, it is important to look at what each leader took away from the talks. If one does that, it becomes clear that not only did Putin get far more that he wants but that Trump received in return promises that aren’t worth the air the Kremlin dictator used in expressing them.
Using the Kremlin readout of the talks on which almost all commentaries east and west currently rely, it becomes obvious just how much a victory the phone call was for Putin and how little, all the hoopla notwithstanding, Trump got in return. The consequences of this imbalance tragically will be seen soon enough.
Here is a list of what Putin got:
- An end to his diplomatic isolation that has been in place since his invasion of Ukraine
- Explicit promises of a summit soon between the two leaders
- Implicit recognition of spheres of influence and of Russia and the US as equal “partners”
- Explicit acceptance of his insistence that the US and Russia should decide things, apparently without the participation of those involved, including Ukraine
- An implicit promise to lift sanctions in the name of improving economic relations between the two countries.
Here is a list of what Trump got:
- A promise that Russia would cooperate in the war on Islamist terror and assurances that Russians like Americans just as Americans like Russians.
Putin’s behaviour in Syria shows just how little that promise is worth, although one can be sure that Moscow and its Western supporters will view this as a great breakthrough, just as Putin and apparently Trump as well intend them to.
Conversation between two “friends”
But the real meaning of yesterday’s conversation between the two leaders is underscored by the reactions of Russian commentators who signalled that their hopes were coming true: one politician, for example, said that as a result of the Putin-Trump talks, NATO is in disarray.
And others suggested this conversation had been between two “friends” rather than just chiefs of state or insisted that it was a breakthrough to a new era of good feelings in which Ukraine and other problems of the past could now be put aside.
The author of these lines has often lamented the unfortunate impact of jet travel and telephonic communication on relations between countries, two technical innovations that have elevated the importance of personal ties among leaders above other things even as they have reduced the role for diplomats and a careful consideration of national interests.
That unfortunate trend has some deep and disturbing precedents: When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, he celebrated what he said was the fact that Hitler really liked him and that such feelings could be the basis for a new era of good feelings between Germany and the United Kingdom.
One can only hope that no Western leader in the rush to boost his ratings will be similarly manipulated by this generation’s counterpart to the Nazi dictator.
The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Vladimir Putin holding Donald Trump (the image is illustrative/courtesy of Esquire magazine/Pinterest.)