First they were going to meet, then they weren’t, then again they were. Now they are not. In the space of a few weeks, this has been the dizzying whimsical position of US President Donald Trump towards a proposed meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris this weekend.
International leaders are gathering in the French capital to mark the centennial end to World War I. November 11, Sunday, is the anniversary of the armistice in 1918. Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron has convened a “peace summit” as an appendage to the World War I commemoration. But Trump is reportedly skipping that summit.
Last month, during a visit to Moscow, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton had confirmed that a meeting would take place between the American leader and President Putin during the proceedings this weekend in Paris.
Earlier this week, in a surprise turnaround, the Trump White House announced that there would be no meeting. Days later, the Kremlin said that a brief encounter between Trump and Putin would take place during a working lunch at the Élysée Palace.
The US president will attend the WWI commemoration in Paris, but he is reportedly “snubbing” Macron’s peace summit at which dozens of other world leaders, including Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel, are due to participate in.
Trump’s zig-zagging over a meeting with Putin in Paris bears the hallmark of electioneering.
When he announced earlier this week that a meeting would not take place in Paris – contradicting Bolton’s earlier confirmation – it can be averred that Trump was appeasing American critics by presenting himself as being “tough on Russia”.
In that way, diplomacy with Russia is being abused by the American leader in order to neutralize claims by rival Democrats and large sections of the US media that he is somehow beholden to the Kremlin. That harks to the whole so-called “Russia-gate” scandal that has dogged his presidency for the past two years.
Many political observers, including Americans, have noted that this is a contrived “scandal” for which there is scant evidence. Russia has consistently refuted the claims. Trump himself has often dismissed the notion of collusion with Putin to get elected as president as “fake news”.
Trump’s views on a wide range of issues are dubious, but on the clamor over alleged Russian interference in the US elections, he is correct. It is a bogeyman brouhaha whipped up by his domestic opponents to undermine his mandate.
The point, however, is this. Despite the illusion of alleged collusion with Russia, it is evident that Trump is being forced to abuse diplomacy with Russia in order to placate domestic opponents who continue to milk this “scandal”. The White House’s on-off approach to a serious engagement with Moscow is evidently being determined by internal American politics and electioneering.
That is an unacceptable, not to say deplorable, way for relations between the US and Russia to be conducted. There are many global issues that the two leaders must urgently engage in through substantive negotiations. Not least the issue of nuclear arms control and the risk of catastrophic war from the deterioration in bilateral relations. The recent decision by the US to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which could gravely destabilize security in Europe, is perhaps top of the agenda for earnest dialogue.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that a full meeting between Trump and Putin may take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit to he held later this month in Argentina. It remains to be seen if that sideline meeting will indeed occur. Even if it does, it is questionable how appropriate such a venue would be, given the gravity of outstanding issues for discussion between the American and Russian leaders.
Nearly four months ago, Trump held his first full meeting with Putin in Helsinki. The two leaders appeared to hold a constructive conservation on a range of matters, with promises of follow-up meetings. Immediately following Helsinki, Trump was assailed with accusations in the US media of being a “traitor” for merely talking with Putin.
Such anti-Russia hysteria in the US is irrational and, moreover, insane. The two nuclear superpowers are being prevented from a normal, rational engagement by political opponents of Trump who are recklessly pushing a myth of “Russia threat” as a way to cripple his presidency.
It is all the more perplexing that President Trump is apparently obliged to abuse diplomacy with Russia as a means to win votes.
The tragic irony is that polls show that most ordinary American citizens do not view the “Russia-gate” issue as significant. They rightly see it as a hobbyhorse flogged by Washington politicians and the media establishment in a futile bid to undermine Trump. The real scandal here is that “Russia-gate” is not a scandal. It is a phony political stunt.
As the US midterm elections showed this week, most Americans seem much more concerned about basic everyday economic issues of jobs and making a living for their families. Alleged Russian interference is a non-issue for most American citizens. Trump was elected by Americans partly because he promised to normalize relations with Russia, not antagonize them.
Yet this non-issue is being driven by the American elite political class in a way that is further wrecking relations between the US and Russia, and leading to greater tensions. Renowned Princeton Professor of history Stephen Cohen recently warned that the risk of a nuclear war between the US and Russia is greater than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
How grotesquely absurd that on an occasion marking 100 years after World War I – the supposed “war to end all wars” which resulted in up to 20 million deaths and the beginning of industrialized global warfare – the two leaders of the biggest nuclear powers are not holding a full weekend of earnest negotiations to secure world peace.
It is surely depraved when an American president is being held hostage by political fantasies concerning Russia. Fantasies that stem from elite political machinations that are irrelevant to the concerns of ordinary American citizens and other citizens the world over.