According to version A, Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on Friday and came out smelling like roses. He was super-presidential. If you believe U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other fans of the president, Trump went after Putin mano a mano. He didn’t give an inch. He pushed Putin to the wall on the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election. When Putin realized Trump was such a steely hombre, the chemistry between the two leaders erupted and their meeting went on forever.
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According to version B, Trump met with Putin and came out with his tail between his legs. He was easy prey for the wily Russian fox. He kowtowed to Putin and whitewashed his crimes. If you believe Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Trump’s critics, the U.S. president mumbled something noncommittal about U.S. media and intelligence services’ constant harping about Russian intervention or something in the election, can you believe it, to which Putin said it never happened and Trump moved on. Then they spent another two hours during which Putin pumped up Trump’s ego and in exchange Trump gave away the American store, wholesale.
In normal times, most of the Western world would automatically accept Tillerson’s version. Americans may not be compulsive truth-tellers, but the Russians have a long and proven record of lying and making stuff up, from inventing Coca-Cola to not bombing civilians in Syria.
But these are not normal times, of course. The credibility of the White House is at an all-time low, and it’s hard to choose which narrative is more credible. The fact that the American side in the meeting included only Trump and Tillerson, who are both suspected of tilting toward the Kremlin, makes it harder to trust their account.
What is indisputable is that the two leaders held a meeting that was longer and more cordial than expected. To enhance its convivial image, we were told that first lady Melania Trump was sent in to tell Trump and Putin to hurry up, like a concerned hostess reminding two old friends in the study who couldn’t get enough of each other that their dinner guests were waiting. But the very start of such a beautiful friendship is open to debate. Many people, not limited to Trump’s acolytes, believe that close collaboration between Moscow and Washington is essential to solving the world’s problems, including North Korea. Many others, not limited to Trump’s enemies, are convinced that Trump knowingly sabotaged the West’s efforts to ostracize Putin for his bad deeds from the Ukraine through Crimea all the way to the computers of the Democratic National Committee. If you believe Trump is a Kremlin lackey, this meeting gave you no reason to change your mind.
Nonetheless, the meeting yielded tangible results. First and foremost, it brought news of an impending announcement of a cease-fire agreement in Syria, which will include, according to press reports, the removal of Iran from Israel’s northern borders as well as agreement that Syrian President Bashar Assad will stay in power, for the time being at least.
Such an agreement, if it holds, can serve Israel’s security interests and divert the U.S. from what seemed like growing involvement in the Syrian conflict. Keeping Assad in power, on the other hand, contradicts the Trump administration’s own position, gives a powerful propaganda victory for Russia, Iran and their allies and is, in the final analysis, a desecration of the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who died in the country’s civil war.
There also seems to be movement between the U.S. and Russia on Ukraine, though no specific news on the topic has yet to emerge from the Trump-Putin summit.
The appointment of former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ken Volker as special representative to Ukraine could allay some concerns of Russia hawks such as Senator John McCain. But it also enhances suspicions that Trump and Putin are aiming for a comprehensive deal that could bring the sanctions against Moscow to an early end.
Most of the conspiracy theories about the Russian intervention on behalf of Trump in the election maintain that this was what the Kremlin was aiming for in the first place.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one cannot ignore the stark contradiction between the surprising warmth between Trump and Putin and the freezing cold between many other Western leaders and the U.S. president. Trump found himself isolated on substantive issues, including free trade, global warming and his courtship of Putin, which agitates nervous European leaders. But mostly, their apprehensions are personal. Like most of their citizens, they don’t trust Trump and they don’t understand him. They view him as an unguided missile that is a threat to liberal democracy and global stability. They are afraid of Trump, to put it plainly, and his meeting with Putin did nothing to allay their fears. On the contrary.