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Trump-Putin summit: poker or chess?

Beyond the public statements, that press conference and the controversies, some constructive initiatives might have come out of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Stephen Hoadley writes.

The Trump-Putin summit, as predicted by sceptics, produced no revelations or fundamental policy changes by either the US or Russia. But it did illustrate the operating mode of the current US Administration and the political context in which it functions. And it did foreshadow some potentially constructive initiatives.

First, it was not quite accurate to say that the US went into the summit hastily and ill-prepared, an assessment that analysts applied also to the US-North Korea and US-NATO summits. The Washington Post reported that senior staff members produced 100 pages of briefing points for the President, the Secretary of State, and other top officials who met with Russian counterparts. One may surmise that the Russian president and his entourage were equally well-briefed.

Each government (at least at the officials level) was clear about what it wanted from the other, based on years of rivalry, intelligence assessment, and disapprobation. The US brief prescribed a firm stance to call out Russia’s aggressive policies and meddling in US politics. The Russian brief stressed relief from US-led economic sanctions and a tacit acceptance of Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and great power status equal to the US.

Trump, who prides himself as a poker player taking bold chances for quick wins, ignored the US brief, attempted to employ bluff and flattery, and ended up undermining his own intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in US politics. The negative reaction in Washington, predictably from Democratic Party leaders and former President Obama, spread also to Republican Party leaders and former and current security officials such as the Director of National Intelligence. Trump’s attempts to walk back the following day were unconvincing.

Putin, in contrast, was playing chess, that is, making calculated moves directed at a long-term end: to make Russia great again. At the post-summit press conference he proved deft at deflecting questions from the assembled reporters, making Trump look amateurish by comparison. Putin may not have persuaded anyone of the legitimacy of Russia’s policies, but he did earn new respect as a formidable competitor.

Second, immediate results were nil but several initiatives were promising. Regarding arms control, both sides appeared to agree on the desirability of updating the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to take into account technical and geo-political developments.

Regarding sanctions, Putin astutely hinted at the formation of a working group that would include US business leaders; these can be expected to bring pressure on the US Administration to ease sanctions so as to promote US dollar commerce, certainly a Trump goal. Lifting US Treasury sanctions against Rusal, a Russian aluminium corporation, was also mentioned. However, US Senate and House leaders may object, illustrating again the influence of domestic politics on US foreign policies.

Tacit US-Russian cooperation over Syria seems likely given coordination of military air movements is already in place and both governments want to withdraw their military forces and proceed with humanitarian reconstruction. The US appears accepting of President Assad’s continuing rule despite his brutal record and dependency on Russian support.

Where to from here? Behind the headlines one may be sure officials on both sides are in contact with their counterparts and are seeking some common ground even as they assert irreconcilable demands from their leaders’ divergent standpoints. They will not be helped by President Trump’s erratic egocentric tweets or President Putin’s dogged nationalism. While in the public eye Trump may play diplomatic poker and Putin will prefer strategic chess, it is hoped that behind the scenes their officials will play serious diplomacy and craft meaningful compromises that will stabilise the US-Russia relationship.

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