The president-elect’s narrow victory at the end of a volatile campaign quickly led to efforts at planning a meeting of the American and Russian leaders. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated badly, not to say spectacularly, in the last year of the previous administration, amidst mutual recriminations about spying. Russia’s activist ambassador began assiduously working his contacts in the president-elect’s entourage to assess the new team’s attitude and prospects for improved relations. Heedless of experts counseling caution, the impetuous new chief executive plunged ahead with plans to meet his more experienced and wily counterpart, driven by the conviction that he could improve a relationship damaged by his blundering predecessor.
The year was 1961, and John F. Kennedy’s summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna that June is generally considered to have been a disaster. Owing to insufficient diplomatic preparation, there was no set agenda for the meeting, which was billed as an opportunity to get acquainted. Khrushchev concluded that the inexperienced new president was weak and unlikely to respond forcefully to Soviet actions. Within the next year he would trigger two crises that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. He was emboldened to step up the pressure on Berlin—the wall started going up in August. And the summit almost certainly encouraged Khrushchev to believe that he could deploy nuclear weapons to Cuba surreptitiously and that, confronted by a fait accompli, Kennedy was likely to back down. It was arguably the most dangerous moment in the Cold War. In the words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the two nuclear superpowers were “eyeball to eyeball,” with the very real prospect of a devastating nuclear exchange.
This history was of course brought to mind by the performance of President Donald Trump in his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The eerie parallels speak for themselves. As Karl Marx famously wrote in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, second as farce.” But there is an important difference—Kennedy had the wit to realize that Khrushchev had gotten the better of the exchange. He told the New York Times’s James Reston on background that it was the “Worst thing in my life, he savaged me.” President Trump and his acolytes, on the other hand, appear to believe the July 7 meeting of the two leaders in Hamburg went very well indeed. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s briefing to the press, “the meeting was very constructive. The two leaders, I would say, connected very quickly. There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two.”
More realistically, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, hardly a bastion of hostility to Trump, soberly noted that “we’ll find out in the coming weeks how Vladimir Putin sized up Donald Trump in their first mano a mano meeting on Friday, but one bad sign is the Trump team’s post-meeting resort to Obama-like rhetoric of cooperation and shared U.S.-Russia purposes.”
Here is why the meeting not only was not a success but was likely a disaster for U.S.-Russia relations and global order. The absence of an agenda on the U.S. side (as national security adviser H. R. McMaster admitted before the event) guaranteed that Putin (who most assuredly always has an agenda) would dominate and drive the conversation. Moreover, a limit on the number of participants left Trump without the services of McMaster and his senior director for Russia, the very impressive Fiona Hill. The U.S. side is now dependent on the interpreters’ notes for a record of the discussion, not having had a Russian speaker who knows Putin well in the meeting, someone who might have picked up important nuances in the conversation.
The Russian agenda for the meeting was clear: to (1) deflect the issue of hacking and interference in the U.S. election, (2) preserve Russia’s position as the arbiter of Syria’s future, including after the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, and (3) set the stage for the removal of post-Crimea sanctions and normalization of the situation in Ukraine, in anticipation that the government in Kiev will ultimately collapse and Russia will be able to pick up the pieces. Trump’s lack of preparation appears to have advanced Russia’s agenda in each of these areas.
On the election interference issue, Tillerson said that the president pressed Putin. The Russians say that Trump accepted Putin’s denials that Moscow had improperly interfered in the election campaign and agreed to move on. Tillerson asserted that Trump and Putin “had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject” and that “the president pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement.” Trump’s own subsequent tweet saying he had “already given my opinion”—a reference to his press conference statement the previous day that no one really knows who did it—suggests that the Russian account is closer to the truth. Moreover, Tillerson is reported to have told associates privately that he was stunned that the president opened the discussion by saying “I’m going to get this out of the way,” in effect signaling his lack of seriousness about the issue.
On Syria, Trump and Putin reached a deconfliction agreement for the area in southern Syria along the Jordanian border. As the Lawfare blog noted:
The agreement is notable in that it protects some of the rebels’ embattled territory, preserving their role in negotiating the future of Syria; that is a significant win for the United States despite Washington’s limited leverage in the Syrian civil war. But Russia probably gets the better end of the bargain: The agreement builds on the Astana framework negotiated by Russia, will rely on Russian forces to monitor and enforce the ceasefire, and follows the U.S. government’s decision to drop its stated policy calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
More troubling still was Tillerson’s assertion that “Russia has the same, I think, interest that we do in having Syria become a stable place, a unified place, but ultimately a place where we can facilitate a political discussion about their future, including the future leadership of Syria.” It was this statement that some labeled as “Kerry-speak.”
Anyone who has followed the developments in Syria since 2011 and who thinks the United States and Russia share the same interests there is simply delusional. Putin sees the rebellion in Syria as a U.S.-sponsored “color revolution” whose ultimate objective is Assad’s removal. Russia’s professions of concern about ISIS belie its record of bombing and killing the very “moderate” forces the U.S. government has been training, Moscow’s aim being to present Washington with a binary choice between ISIS and accepting the continuation of the murderous Assad regime. This does not even begin to touch on Russian war crimes and support for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
On Ukraine, Trump tweeted that sanctions on Russia had not been discussed at the meeting, but it is not clear what to make of the appointment of former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker, a formidable diplomat with no illusions about Russia, as U.S. special representative for Ukraine. Under normal circumstances Volker’s selection would be welcomed by critics of U.S. passivity in the face of Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine. The signal sent by his announcement, however, was vitiated by Tillerson’s explanation that the envoy position was created “at the request of President Putin.” The danger here is that Putin is creating a “special channel” to lay the groundwork for normalization and U.S. concessions in return for worthless Russian promises.
What did the Russian side likely take away from this first meeting between the two leaders? It appears that they have taken Trump’s measure and see him as someone whom they can manipulate by flattery, whose lack of preparation enables them to drive the agenda, and who is unwilling to exact costs on them for the extraordinary act of interfering in U.S. elections.
Already Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is talking about expelling up to 30 U.S. diplomats and perhaps appropriating U.S. properties in Moscow in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian personnel and seizure of Russian diplomatic recreational facilities by the Obama administration at the end of 2016. This is likely only the beginning. Putin decided that Obama was someone whose “greater flexibility” in the second term he could use to advantage. Hamburg no doubt taught him he is not facing a more determined adversary but rather that he is getting more of the same.
Eric Edelman is Hertog Practitioner-in-Residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard