By Patricia H Kushlis
On Monday, July 16, Donald Trump is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin. I could suggest that Trump is salivating for this meeting on the Baltic although why he wants it so much, remains unclear. Is it the prestige of meeting face to face in an hour long meeting a deux with another male autocrat for whom he has a special affinity?
It doesn’t take that long for a photo op after all.
Normally, as former Ambassador Nicholas Burns observed in a PBS Newshour interview Friday evening, the principals are well prepared and the topics of such meetings are clearly defined and set out in advance.
When President George H W Bush met with Mikhael Gorbachev his Soviet counterpart in Helsinki September 9, 1990 in the very same location – the Presidential Palace near Senate Square – Bush knew in advance what the topic would be - in fact he had called the meeting - and also knew what he wanted out of it: the topic then was Iraq’s illegal invasion and occupation of Kuwait and Bush wanted Gorbachev’s support, if not just his tacit approval, to launch an invasion of multilateral forces to expel Saddam Hussein’s troops from the country. Bush got what he wanted.
But what does Trump want from a meeting with Putin aside from a photo op and a pat on the back? Kudos for bashing NATO and insulting German President Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Teresa May? Bravos for kicking up sand in the Alliance’s face and interfering in British domestic politics in support of the hardline Brexiteers who are May’s primary opposition? Another chance to insult the EU? A pay raise from his ultimate paymaster?
We know that the Kremlin has a well defined foreign policy. It is revisionist; revanchist and aggressive. Putin and his oligarchs see the US and Western Europe as major impediments to the Kremlin's ambitions and are using cyber warfare all too effectively to achieve their aims. Putin’s policy demands a restoration of the borders of an almost mythical Russia with territory that extends far into Russian speaking lands extending well beyond the largest borders ruled by the Czars.
International recognition of Russia's incorporation of Crimea is the first step; Eastern Ukraine will be next along with the breakaway statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia that the Russian military wrested from its neighbor summer 2008 but that no one else in the international community has recognized a decade later.
Is Trump prepared to agree?
He's demonstrated time and again his lack of diplomatic negotiating skills. His foreign affairs background is exceedingly weak, he never prepares and he's far too conceited to agree to including advisors who actually know the subjects to be raised into such high stakes meetings.
Is he going to agree to a lifting of the economic sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014? This is what Susan Rice, Obama’s former National Security Advisor, fears will happen behind those closed doors in Helsinki. She argues that “at the behest of his favorite foreign partners – Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – Mr Trump has been encouraged to trade recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea and the termination of sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, for Russia’s pledge to curtail Iranian influence in Syria and the region.” And for what in return? If this is the outcome, what would the US get out of it and what would be the repercussions? Rice could be right.
And by the way, whatever happened to Reagan’s “trust but verify?”
Now, on top of this, the Mueller investigation took Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections at least one step further. On Friday, while Trump was drinking tea with Queen of England, the Mueller investigation announced it had charged 12 active duty officers of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence of conspiracy to interfere in the US campaign through cyber warfare attacks on the Democratic Party, its officials and staff, as well as state and local election websites. These fishing expeditions were made all on behalf of assisting Mr. Trump's election. The investigation also charged the GRU -12 with contacts with at least two unidentified Americans to share the stolen information – one American with close connections to the Trump campaign (read Roger Stone who has already admitted as much) and the other running for Congress.
I tend to think that the tight-lipped highly professional Mueller investigation runs on its own schedule and we know that Mueller, in all fairness, notified Trump before his departure for Brussels of the forthcoming charges so it should have come as no surprise to Trump that the indictments would be announced publicly while he was in Europe.
Nevertheless – as usual – Trump has continued to falsely accuse Mueller’s team of conducting a witch hunt, and I can only assume, therefore, that he will not raise the conspiracy charges with Putin on Monday, or if so, down play them as erroneous and inconsequential as opposed to praising Putin to the hilt.
I’ve argued – and continue to think – that Trump’s approach to US foreign policy is foremost transactional. By this I mean that it consists of transactions that enrich Trump at the expense of the nation he purportedly leads: he concedes American national interests for his own personal self-aggrandizement. Financing for another Trump hotel or golf course? Permission to build one or both in Moscow? For Trump, the presidency is a cash cow: his personal slot machine.
Meanwhile, when Trump and Putin enter the Finnish Presidential Palace on Monday, they might consider the fate of Russian Empire's Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov, a former resident, who was murdered in 1904 on the stairs of the then Senate and now Council of State building just around the corner on Senate Square. The assassin was Finnish nationalist Eugen Schauman who so strenuously objected to the Russification of Finland which Bobrikov had begun to implement with such vengeance that Schauman shot Bobrikov three times and then killed himself.
A plaque marks the location of the assassination. Here's how it was described in the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's leading newspaper, a century later: "In the stairwell, set off by the building's red carpets and green walls, is a memorial plaque which states that Schauman was acting on behalf of his country: Se Pro Patria Dedit."
I also remember being shown a dark stain on the floor not far from the main entrance. I was told that it was the blood of the Russian Governor General spilled just 13 years before the Russian Empire came to its ignominious end and Finland declared and gained its independence.
For Putin, that blood should suggest a cautionary note: the expansion of Empires into unfriendly territories is ultimately not good for the Empire’s or Emperor's own health; for Trump, well I leave it to you.