Without too much effort, you can imagine a 2018 summit between the presidents of the United States and Russia that would have been successful and beneficial to both countries.
Such a meeting would have started to bring Russia out of its rogue-state isolation and created a pathway to ending the crippling international sanctions on Moscow. It would have dialled down the democratic world’s fears of Russia’s international actions and threats by suggesting concrete proposals. It would have shown that high-level diplomacy can work.
That was not the summit that took place in Helsinki on Monday.
There was a brief suggestion that someone in Donald Trump’s administration knew that such a summit could have been possible: “Diplomacy and engagement are preferable to conflict and hostility,” the U.S. President declared in the staff-written remarks at his post-summit news conference.
For the meeting to have contained any meaningful diplomacy or engagement, Mr. Trump would have had to press Vladimir Putin hard, and extract concrete actions, on the outstanding issues of the day:
- On Syria, where a research report by the international watchdog body that oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention found last week that Moscow-backed President Bashar al-Assad carried out a chemical-weapons attack in March in the town of Douma. The attack, which killed dozens, was one of many grotesque humanitarian atrocities committed by Russia’s actors in that war;
- On Britain, where a citizen was poisoned to death last week as a side effect of the near-successful poisoning of two Russians who had informed on their spy agency’s crimes, using a type of ultra-volatile chemical weapon produced only by the Russian government;
- On Ukraine, which this week marks the fourth anniversary of the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner by Russian forces occupying the country’s eastern territories, killing 298 people months after Russia invaded and seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea – an invasion recognized internationally as a war crime;
- On the United States, where federal prosecutors on Friday announced indictments against 12 agents of Russia’s intelligence agency the GRU, along with hundreds of pages of documents showing that they engaged in the large-scale theft of documents from the Democratic National Committee in a Watergate-like effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
In the meeting’s aftermath, neither Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin or any of their aides said anything to suggest they had changed Moscow’s position or reduced its threat on any of these issues. On some of the most important ones, Mr. Trump appears to have fully capitulated to Mr. Putin’s own personal and national interests, apparently out of sincere agreement.
On Syria, Mr. Trump strongly suggested he had given in to the Russian position in support of the Assad regime, declaring only that both countries now co-operate in aiding the Syrian civilians devastated and displaced by Mr. al-Assad’s actions and in protecting Israel.
On Russia’s poisoning atrocities in Britain, Mr. Trump was utterly silent. Two days after he attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May in a U.K. newspaper interview laced with political scorn and white-supremacist talking points, Mr. Trump warmly embraced Mr. Putin, lauding “the first steps toward a brighter future,” apparently without having mentioned his counterpart’s very recent deadly attack on his ally’s people.
On the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Trump said barely a word, while Mr. Putin suggested that the U.S. President had registered his country’s disagreement with the annexation of Crimea without having issued any threats or ultimatums that might have led to a reversal. The very issue that ended Russia’s diplomatic relations with the wider world, in other words, received no substantial diplomatic attention.
And on the criminal actions by Mr. Putin’s agents to undermine and discredit the entire U.S. democratic system, Mr. Trump was voluble and outspoken – almost entirely on Mr. Putin’s behalf. His lengthy dialogue with reporters was both stultifying familiar, with the familiar conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and utterly novel in its shocking dismissal of his own justice and intelligence agencies’ well-founded conclusions.
“I hold both countries responsible,” he said, and “I don’t see any reason why it would have been Russia,” before launching into attacks on his own intelligence agencies. The Justice Department’s special inquiry into Mr. Putin’s interference, led by the former FBI director Robert Mueller, was denounced as “a disaster for our country” by the U.S. President as he stood beside Mr. Putin.
A day after describing Europe as his country’s leading “foe,” Mr. Trump showed where his interests lie. Whether it was a uniquely treasonous betrayal of his country’s people and interests, or just the latest in Mr. Trump’s self-aggrandizing displays, it did nothing good for the United States, for Russia or for the world.