HELSINKI SUMMIT: NEW INSIGHTS AFTER THE DUST HAS SETTLED
|Presidents Trump and Putin, Helsinki, July 16th|
©President of Russia Website
Now, as the wave of indignation and wide-ranging accusations against Trump, not all of them evidently unfounded, has subsided, we can calmly discuss the outcome of that controversial meeting. Former State Secretary Henry Kissinger recently said that the Helsinki summit had to take place in any event, yet Trump's approach, as all of his foreign policy in general, marks the beginning of a new geopolitical era. Unfortunately, Kissinger added tongue in cheek, Trump most likely is not even aware of it.
Trump, in his awkward ways, is trying to re-introduce a series of bilateral agreements by circumventing old political and military alliances. Some of them were introduced a long time ago at a time of totally different political realities and, according to Trump's thinking, exist mainly due to American financial and military assistance. As well, the Administration in its heart of hearts believes the real threat to the West comes from a re-surging China, not Russia.
In fact the Helsinki Summit had two agendas; one for the immediate public consumption that included Russian involvement in American elections (Trump agreed with Putin that there was no involvement by Russians at the state level, though later under pressure Trump said he misspoke), cooperation on Syria in connection with the security of Israel.
Two weeks after the summit we are beginning to gather more information of the most important part of that meeting-what was said behind closed doors. Trump and Putin made some attempts to find a compromise on the most acute crisis in Europe, the one that divides West and Russia more than anything else,-Ukraine. Mike Pompeo informed the Senate that Trump and Putin agreed to disagree on the Ukrainian issue. Moscow suggested holding a referendum in Donbass (that includes two unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics) under international supervision on the political future of that region. Washington in turn offered to provide 20 to 40 thousand international peacekeepers for the Donbass region and international administration without any NATO or Russian representation.
There was no agreement reached on that issue, but at least it could be offered to Ukraine for consideration and discussed at the upcoming Normandy format meeting between foreign ministry representatives of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
Not widely publicized but discussed during the summit's closed door session was the nuclear disarmament issue.
The New START treaty signed between then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 will not survive automatically on its own. The agreement, which reduced the number of strategic nuclear weapons to 700 deployed launchers and 1,550 warheads, is set to n expire on February 5, 2021, if it is not prolonged by decision of the parties. Should this come to pass, the multi polar international system will be thrown into chaos.
To prevent a disastrous clash, the two countries need to maintain and strengthen the arms-control safety net. This also includes resolving disputes over the implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) a cornerstone of European security. That is why it is necessary to resume the Russia-US dialogue that will lead to official negotiations. For now, the agenda should be narrow, prioritizing three key issues: the prolongation of the New START treaty, the preservation of the INF Treaty, and the prevention of dangerous military accidents.
With this in mind, and brushing aside internal American squabbles and concerns, real or not, on the merits of the Russian involvement in 2016 American elections, the Trump administration had decided to invite Vladimir Putin to Washington for another summit where those concerns, mainly nuclear safety, reduction and arms race control would be high on the agenda.
However the next summit between Trump and Putin was abruptly postponed by the Administration in order to give Mueller Inquiry time to conclude its investigation into Russian election meddling. As John Bolton, National Security Adviser, put it: “The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we have agreed that it will be after January 1st, 2019".
|Presidents Trump and Putin, Helsinki, July 16th|
©President of Russia Website
IRAN-SYRIA ISRAEL FOOTNOTE
Donald Trump may like to present himself as the best friend of Israel. In the discussions around military developments in the south of Syria and their impact on the security of Israel, it is, however, far from clear that he is the main player. President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been frequent interlocutors and seem to have developed a strong relationship. Once they have had their discussion about what to with Iran in Syria, one has the impression that they will play Trump, but not expect him to influence decisions. This leaves Trump to do the posturing, that he does rather well. Unfortunately, it also can incite him to believe he has to take the initiative on the broader issues underpinning the US-Iran conflict. His recent offer to meet Iranian President Rouhani is consistent with his belief that he personally can resolve any problem. After North Korea, US national security specialists may be in for another interesting ride.
LIAR, LIAR OR MR. TRUMP’S TRUTH MANAGEMENT SKILLS
After his controversial statement during the press conference following his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16th, Donald Trump was accused of high treason by John Brennan, the former head of the CIA, for appearing to believe the Russian President more than his own intelligence services on the matter of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Despite Trump’s later explanation about having meant to use a double negative, it is abundantly clear that he indeed believes Putin more than US intelligence. For him, though, this is not a matter of disloyalty to the US security establishment. This is a matter of him believing what suits him best, what he wants to believe. The US intelligence story would suggest that Russia influenced the outcome of the Presidential election in several ways. For Trump the legitimacy of his presidency and the belief that he won “hugely” matter more than the truth, in this case as in many others.
Ironically, one learns more about the Russian meddling in the 2016 election from Putin’s interview with Fox News later on the day of the Summit than from any of Trump’s statements. Whereas Putin expectedly denies any official Russian government involvement in the election, he avoids, as before, denying involvement by Russians in the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) email servers. Instead, rather than addressing the issue head on, he keeps insisting on the fact that the emails that were eventually made public are a true record. In other words, Russians most likely did it, but, by getting access to the emails and publishing them, only made the truth available to the American public. In Putin’s mind, this is clearly a lesser sin, if one at all. Whether Trump likes it or not, Russian hackers exposing the duplicity of the DNC and, separately but even more, FBI Director Comey’s last minute flip-flop on Hillary Clinton’s emails had an influence on the election outcome. By comparison, the alleged Russian use of social networks appears much less significant in terms of its overall scope and impact.
Putin’s virtual back-door admission of a general Russian responsibility for hacking the DNC servers, but not of a Russian government specific action, would be good enough for Donald Trump, even though it would be difficult for him to admit that he owes even part of his Electoral College victory to Russia. For Trump’s adversaries, confining Russian responsibility to one successful but relatively circumscribed action and attributing it to non-government actors is far from satisfactory. To many, it might indeed be inconceivable to believe that there are non-state actors in Putin’s Russia. The incident also inconveniently exposes some Democratic Party leaders’ questionable behaviour. One should bear in mind, however, that Robert Mueller’s investigation mandate includes finding possible links between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, the collusion that Trump constantly denies. Ultimately, despite the serious allegations supported by US intelligence and already 15 months of work, Mueller may never find anything that can reasonably be prosecuted in a US court, but the scrutiny to which it exposes Trump’s entourage has already revealed enough turpitude and poor judgment to justify its continuation. For Trump’s political opponents, the Mueller inquiry serves too many purposes to be abandoned. To them, the fact that the current climate prevents the President from taking any significant, even necessary, new Russia-related initiative and that it essentially makes US-Russia relations dependent on a highly partisan US debate is only collateral damage. The above-mentioned postponement of the proposed Putin visit to Washington is only an example of that.
TRUMP'S TRADE WARS-UPS AND DOWNS
After announcing the raise of tariffs on aluminum and steel produced in Canada, China, Russia and Europe President Trump continues to threaten to introduce even harsher measures against European cars imported to the US. The main target of his trade hostilities has become China; he announced his intentions to apply higher tariffs to all goods imported from China. Trump's calculations are based on the fact that China is no position to reciprocate in kind; Chinese exports to the US by far exceed the stream of American goods to China. Yet Beijing, according to insiders, is preparing to retaliate in different way: Chinese are ready to withdraw almost a trillion dollars’ worth of investments in the US economy and banks.
In a most unexpected twist of his global trade war, Trump recently announced that he could be ready to abolish all tariffs if other trade partners would do the same.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of European council, had commented: every madness has a system. The correctness of this statement had been immediately confirmed by Trump's sudden suggestion, during his meeting with Juncker in the White House, that all tariffs between US and EU could be abolished should both sides agree to it. In fact such a radical measure cannot even be implemented without long and painstaking negotiations. The situation is made even more unrealistic by the fact that tariffs on Canada, Mexico and China are already in place.
There may be some perverse irony, but there is also some astuteness in the alleged Russian proposal to hold a popular democratic referendum in the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine to ascertain the wishes of the population as to its political future. Russia was not unaware of the fact that the proposal would be met with a negative reaction in Kyiv. Its rejection is not a surprise. It, however, serves to highlight the fact that there is no political support in Kyiv for a negotiated political settlement of the conflict with the rebel regions, to the point where direct political dialogue with the leaders of the rebel regions is anathema. In that context, the idea of the referendum would be formally to bypass the rebel authorities and hear directly from the people living in the region and give them a voice in the attempts to settle the conflict. Such a “concession” is not currently acceptable to Kyiv authorities. With the presidential and parliamentary elections around the corner, the likelihood of a substantial change in Kyiv’s position is even more unlikely. There is, however, the outside chance that one influential oligarch might pick up on the idea. The Russian proposal, in any event, puts Kyiv on the defensive. As a central government apparently unwilling to hear the views of the inhabitants of one of its regions, it puts Ukraine in the same camp as Spain in its conflict with Catalonian independence partisans. All in all, Russia has lost nothing by making the proposal, but has scored if nothing else a small political argument.
The allegations to the effect that the current authorities in Kyiv harbour a significant number of fascists, anti-Semitic or xenophobic elements have often been written off as part of the Moscow propaganda. Granted, the composition of the Ukrainian government and the historical views of some of its members do not change substantially the nature of its current conflict with Russia. Nevertheless, the glorification of certain WWII actors that are considered in Ukraine as national heroes, but are considered elsewhere, including in other countries such as Poland and Russia, as war criminals will not cease to be a most controversial and sensitive issue. So is the relative greater frequency of a political discourse that is associated with far-right ideas, even though it should be noted that such a discourse also exists in neighbouring countries. The recent occurrence of racially-motivated incidents and the publication of articles in the Western press condemning them has highlighted the problem and the fact that it is not exclusively a matter of Russian propaganda. This in itself will not change the course of events or the support Ukraine unconditionally receives from its North American allies. It can, however, have a long-term impact on the public opinion debate in which Ukraine has been doing very well so far.
On the separate matter of Crimea, cracks are continuing to appear in the relatively unanimous support Ukraine initially received. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and once political ally of Marine Le Pen, created an uproar by his statement that referred to “some historically Russian zones with Russian culture and traditions which legitimately belong to the Russian Federation” as well as to the legitimacy of the 2014 Crimea referendum. He was critical of the Crimea-related sanctions calling them “not useful and as hurting Italian exports”. He also went as far as to call the 2014 Ukrainian revolution a "pseudo-revolution financed by foreign powers". Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi swiftly replied by reiterating Italy’s support for the EU position on Crimea and that Rome "respects" Ukraine's right to sovereignty.
We had already reported on President Trump’s remarks about Crimea “being Russian because they speak Russian there”. In the aftermath of the Putin Trump Summit, Secretary of State Pompeo had to reiterate publicly and firmly the US position on Crimea. Canada did it a few days later. Rumours will nevertheless continue to circulate about a possible Crimea/Donbass trade-off between Ukraine and Russia. Such a trade-off remains unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.
|President Poroshenko, Mrs. Poroshenko leading the procession|
©President of Ukraine Website
The public celebrations on the occasion of the1030th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in lands that are now part of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia highlighted once more the political sensitivity of jurisdictional issues in the Ukrainian religious domain. On the occasion of this solemn anniversary, two separate processions were organised in Kyiv, the first one by the Church that remains affiliated to the Moscow Patriarchate, the second one by the two independent Ukrainian churches. There was a large difference of opinion between the organisers and the police authorities as to the level of attendance for the first procession (250,000 vs 25,000). President Poroshenko attended the second one and reiterated the call for the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Yet, Poroshenko’s activism on religious matters does not seem to have had any effect on his popular rating.
BRICS-ONE OF THE ALTERNATIVES IN THE MULTI-POLAR WORLD
The July summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in South Africa stressed the necessity to develop closer cooperation between its members with the objective to become a financial and industrial hub that could attract more members and partners. The financial locomotive of this organization is naturally China. Together with Russia, Beijing will increase the role of high technology in that group in order to work towards some competitive level with such alliances as the EU and ASEAN.
According to the latest information Turkish President Erdogan applied for his country's membership in this group. Apart from the substantial economic weight that Turkey carries, Ankara joining BRICS would solidify this alliance's political significance. This turn of events takes on special significance in light of Turkey's repeated statements that the country may consider leaving NATO.
OIL AND POLITICS
Rebels in Yemen attacked two Saudi oil tankers in Bab-el-Mandeb strait and forced them to return to port. Riyadh decided to take their oil through the Red Sea, a lengthier route that will surely increase transportation costs and consequently oil prices at world markets. At the same time India, one of the most stable buyers of Iranian oil has announced its decision to decrease its purchase of Iranian crude in favor of Saudi or Russian suppliers. Major international industrial companies hastily retreating from Iran are not even waiting for November 4th, the deadline for American sanctions against Iran to come into effect. This has already brought the Iranian currency to its lowest level in 15 years. The Iranian government reacted by introducing strict hard currency exchange rules. This in turn will contribute even more to the currency's downfall and worsen the economic situation in the country. There is little doubt that Iranians will come out to the streets to protest economic hardships. Many political observers believe that Tehran will provoke a military clash or even a war at Hormuz or Bab-el-Mandeb straits, to deflect popular attention by whipping out nationalism, to suppress dissent and also to help increase oil prices.
WORLD CUP TOURISM
For Russia as the host country, this year’s edition of the World Cup of Football was a success, only mitigated by the defeat of its national team in quarter finals. The fact that the defeat was in overtime, at the hands of Croatia, and that the Russian team accomplished much more than expected softened the blow.
Media widely reported that a large number of the first-time visitors to Russia were suitably impressed by the welcoming nature of the country and by the efficient organisation of the tournament. Many observed on the contrast between the image of Russia as presented in Western media and the reality they could observe with their very eyes. President Putin himself could not resist mentioning it. The impact of the World Cup 2018 on the image of Russia will not wipe out overnight any disagreement Russia may have with its Western adversaries. It may however affect the tone of the world media coverage in the long term.
The controversial Hungarian Prime Minister has become one of the most talked about political leaders in Europe. Media likes to describe him as "Soft Eurosceptic". On some issues he is not so soft: he leads the anti-Ukrainian campaign in NATO and the EU on account of the alleged discrimination against Hungarian speakers in the Carpathian region of Ukraine. Orban leads the Eastern European opposition to the mass influx of illegal migrants from the Middle East, Africa and other Third World countries. His opposition to EU immigration policies, widely condemned by most Western countries, is based on his vision of security and cultural balance inside Hungary.
Orban is largely supported in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and by some populist parties in Western Europe.
Born in 1963, Viktor Orban transformed himself from a young communist at the age of 15 to an established conservative leader of his country. He maintains a balance between Hungary's membership in NATO and the EU with good relations with Moscow. Also, in spite of some accusations of antisemitism, Orban became the first European leader to officially visit and pray at the Western wall in contravention of long standing EU policy that considers this part of Jerusalem occupied territory.
The unpopular pension reform that was cleverly introduced without too much fanfare during the World Cup of Football has now triggered mass demonstrations in Russia cities. The protests are led by the Communist Party and other left wing political organizations that are coming back from political oblivion by riding the wave of current rallies. The Russian government, bearing in mind historical precedents in the country, takes such demonstrations seriously. It was therefore decided to re-work certain provisions of the reform and to delay the vote in Parliament.
According to sources in Minsk where the contact group on Donbass conflict had an emergency meeting there is a planned exchange of political prisoners between Russia and Ukraine slated for August 2018. This means that Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director who was sentenced by a Russian court to 20 years for "terrorist activities" and whose release was demanded by many across the world finally could be freed.
Meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, representatives of Russia, Iran, and Turkey have kicked off two days of talks on issues related to the war in Syria. The gathering comes as Turkey announced on July 29 that it is planning to hold a summit with France, Germany, and Russia in early September to discuss the Syrian conflict and other regional issues. The Russian delegation in Sochi is headed by the Kremlin's special envoy for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Ansari and his Turkish counterpart, Sedat Onal, were also expected to attend, along with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Former ex-president Kocharyan was detained in Yerevan on charges of bribery and money laundering. This announcement comes amid large scare anti-corruption measures by the new Government of Nikol Pashinyan, that came to power on the wave of mass street demonstrations. Scores of current and former Armenian politicians were recently purged or arrested on various corruption and abuse of power charges.
Kazakh Defense Minister Saken Zhasuzaqov traveled to Bishkek on July 25, making the first official visit by a Kazakh defense chief to Kyrgyzstan since the two Central Asian nations gained independence in the 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Zhasuzaqov's talks with the chief of the Kyrgyz armed forces' General Staff, Raiymberdi Duishenbiev, focused on regional security and military cooperation, the Kyrgyz military said. An agreement on military intelligence cooperation was signed after the talks.
The two countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) along with Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and Tajikistan.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has met with the visiting head of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia on July 23rd, two months after Damascus become one of only a handful of countries to recognize the region's declared independence.
Assad's office revealed that Anatoly Bibilov, the de facto president of South Ossetia, was in Syria on a three-day visit. Assad thanked him for backing his government in its seven-year civil war against various rebels and for recognizing Syria's "sovereignty" and "unity." Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island of Nauru are the only other states that have also recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His particular area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe. Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.
During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.