Trump emerges from Putin meeting with ceasefire in Syria, little else at Hamburg
Washington/Hamburg: In Russia, some call Donald Trump a “marketolog” — a master at the science of marketing.
So Vladimir Putin may well have come into his first meeting with the US president on Friday in Hamburg looking to give Trump something to sell back home, something to talk up and tweet.
What Putin gave him was a cease-fire in southwest Syria, a 140-character headline that Trump can use to show that his idea of working more closely with Putin’s government is starting to bear fruit.
Never mind that the last ceasefire in Syria negotiated by Putin — with the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama — collapsed almost immediately after it was signed.
And never mind that Trump really got nothing else. In the more than two hours the men were together, Trump did not extract any price from Putin for the invasion of Ukraine, his coziness with Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, his ineffectiveness at confronting Islamic State or his support for the Iranian regime.
Not only that, but Trump also seemed eager to move on from the controversy over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election — warning Putin that some US politicians want to impose more sanctions but endorsing no specific penalties himself.
Victory for Putin
Trump did raise the hacking at the start of the meeting with Putin and mentioned it more than once. Putin denied it. But in the end, Trump’s top diplomat said the president decided to move on — that the problem might be too intractable to sort out and shouldn’t stand in the way of future progress between the two nations.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson more or less said that Putin and Trump agreed to disagree, and that the two sides will consider a working group to prevent future election hacking. But he also made it sound like Putin and Trump could go a very long time before ever speaking of Russian election hacking again — which, of course, is a victory for Putin.
Russians, to put it mildly, were delighted.
“The results of the meeting of the Presidents of Russia and the US exceeded my expectations, and not only mine. This is a breakthrough, for certain in the psychological sense and possibly in the practical one,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, wrote on Facebook.
For the US side, going into a meeting with Putin posed great risks for Trump — particularly if it looked like he was going soft on the Russian leader over election hacking intended to benefit Trump’s electoral chances. But Tillerson said the Syria cease-fire in particular shows this is the start of the two countries working together to solve big problems. He said the men were so absorbed, not even Trump’s wife Melania could end the conversation.
“There was just such a level of engagement and exchange that neither one of them wanted to stop. Several times I had to remind the president, people were sticking their heads in the door and I think they even sent in the first lady at one point to see if she could get us out of there, but that didn’t work either,” Tillerson said.
It’s not exactly “got a sense of his soul,” as George W. Bush described his connection with Putin after their first meeting — remarks widely derided at the time. But Tillerson suggested a personal connection between the two men.
Foreign policy experts were not so sure.
‘Dereliction of duty’
Richard Haass, a former Bush administration diplomat who’s now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump and Tillerson are “right that you don’t want to hold the entire relationship hostage to what happened” in the 2016 election. At the same time, Haass said Trump should have clearly “drawn a marker for the future” and told Putin that “there will be severe penalties imposed” if the US detects Russian interference in US or allies’ internal affairs.
“He should have said, ‘We may still impose penalties on you,’” Haass said. “Russia remains a spoiler. We just need to remain extraordinarily careful and skeptical.”
Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said the meeting was “definitely not a triumphant moment” for Trump due to the lack of accomplishments beyond the cease-fire. He called the handling of the election meddling issue “disturbing.”
“You can’t agree to disagree about facts like that, especially when the sovereignty of the United States is what we’re talking about,” he said.
Predictably, Democrats were quick to call the meeting a failure.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said after the meeting that giving equal credence to the US intelligence community and Putin’s denial is a “grave dereliction of duty and will only encourage Russia to further interfere in our elections in the future.”
Tillerson’s suggestion that the election meddling issue could remain unresolved was “disgraceful,” Schumer said in a statement, and he called on lawmakers to “do all they can to increase sanctions on Russia” and prevent the administration from weakening current sanctions. Bloomberg