The forthcoming meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit has got to be the most anticipated political moment of the year. The handshake, smiles, body language and words will all be scrutinized to parse significance in the encounter between the leaders of the world’s two superpowers.
Sections of the American media will no doubt be looking for secret signals between «agent Trump» and the former «KGB spy Putin» to confirm their suspicions it was the Kremlin that orchestrated the US presidential election to get Trump into the White House. That spy-thriller narrative has been running non-stop in prominent US news outlets – and yet six months after Trump’s inauguration not even a single bit of hard evidence has emerged to support the allegations of collusion. It’s a spy fantasy that has taken on a life of its own, which even the CNN channel – one of the biggest purveyors of the Trump-Russia trope – has recently been caught out disclosing quietly that it’s a «nothing burger».
Nonetheless, on a more serious level, the meeting between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit next weekend will have a «moment of truth» quality. It’s their first encounter, although the two leaders have held at least two phone conversations in the past six months.
Confirming that the Trump-Putin one-on-one is scheduled during the Hamburg summit, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that the meeting will «clarify» the state of bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow.
«We expect the Hamburg meeting between our presidents to clarify the prospects for Russian-US cooperation», said Lavrov speaking in Moscow last Friday at the Primakov Readings conference.
The tone of anticipation in Moscow is understandable. As Lavrov pointed out, the relation between the US and Russia is critical for addressing a wide range of pressing global issues. Yet, as he noted, that relation has been distorted into an «abnormal» state because it is «held hostage by domestic political struggles in the US».
When Trump was campaigning for the presidency, he pitched himself as being a leader who would return US-Russia relations to a new normal of friendly cooperation. This contrasted with his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton who was vowing to take a tough confrontational line on Moscow over international issues like Ukraine and Syria. It is a fair assumption that Trump won the election partly because the American electorate preferred his ticket of restoring relations with Russia. After decades of reckless overseas wars, the American voters did not want more of Clinton’s jingoistic posturing.
However, since Trump entered the White House, the promised normalization of US-Russia relations has not materialized. Indeed, with the imposition of new rounds of economic sanctions by Washington and the stepped-up US military intervention in Syria, one could say that relations have deteriorated even further.
Both sides acknowledge that relations between the world’s two largest nuclear powers have sunk to a worrying level. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov openly stated the deplorable situation during their first bilateral meeting in Moscow earlier this year in April.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently said in an interview with American film director Oliver Stone that there has been no discernible improvement in bilateral relations between the US and Russia since Trump became president.
This is in spite of the fact that both the White House and the Kremlin have expressed a desire to seek better relations.
Of course, much of US policy towards Russia is out of Trump’s control. The hawkish Republican and Democrat dominated Congress is pushing through more hostile anti-Russia sanctions independent of Trump’s personal views. The latest bill on increasing sanctions has been tabled in such a way that it curtails Trump’s ability to use his executive power to revoke sanctions.
Also, what we are seeing too are the limits of US democracy. The people may have voted for a president who wants to pursue friendlier relations with Russia, but the American political establishment and its powerful media organizations refuse to accept that democratic expression. The US establishment and large sections of the military-security apparatus wanted Clinton and her Cold War-style foreign policy to win the election. She lost. But the powers-that-be then resorted to Plan B of coercing the new president into adopting its policy goal of hostility toward Russia.
Is Trump being held hostage by the American «deep state» and its influential media machine? No doubt there seems to be a big factor of that at play here. But it is still not clear what Trump’s own intentions are. As well as the Congress slapping on new harsher sanctions against Russia, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also signed off on a separate round of punitive measures. Surely, if the White House had an intention of normalizing relations with the Kremlin then Trump could have stopped the Treasury from hatching more sanctions?
There is also the question of Trump’s policy on Syria. The ratcheting up of air strikes on Syria under Trump’s watch has escalated tensions with Russia which, rightly, views the American military attacks as a grave violation of Syrian sovereignty and international law. Russia has even intimated that future US air strikes will not be tolerated. Will Trump heed this warning, or is he intent on provoking an all-out confrontation with Syria’s ally, Russia?
Trump’s meeting with Putin in Hamburg will certainly be a moment to watch, if not exactly a vaunted moment of truth. If Trump does adopt a tough-guy posture, then it suggests that the US president is indeed a hostage to reactionary anti-Russia circles in Washington. In a pathetic way, he will be seen has having been cowed by the obsessive Russophobia that is deranging US government.
Alternatively, the bets are that Trump will greet Putin with gusto and a cordial vibe. But in that case the moment will also be telling. In the context of ongoing provocative hostility towards Russia in Washington, the «friendly Trump» shows that he is a non-entity president. Someone who really has no power and ultimately cannot be trusted to make meaningful policy.
Either way, the real moment of truth will be that US democracy is a fiction.