US-Russia relations after Helsinki

Kamal Uddin Ahmed   | Published: August 02, 2018 21:50:32 | Updated: August 02, 2018 22:27:13

In the conduct of international relations, there are no permanent foes and no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. Thus, Lord Palmerston who served twice as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century, said: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and these interests it is our duty to follow. "

Probably, US President Donald Trump attempted to pursue the Palmerstonian  policy while undertaking the Helsinki one-on-one meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on  July 16, 2018. But could he preserve permanent national interests of America? Could he pursue a bold foreign policy as a formidable leader of the international system? Could he patch-up deteriorating relations with Russia? Most analysts reckon he couldn't.

Bilateral relations between the US and Russia are now most challenging and acrimonious since the end of the Cold War period. The relations have dented because of several geo-political and security factors. First, Russia's 2008 war with Georgia. Second, its annexation of Crimea, third, its direct involvement in the Syrian Civil War and last but not least, it's meddling in the 2016 US presidential election undermining US democracy.

However, Trump has been eager to repair relations with Russia. Prior to the summit, Trump defined Putin as a "competitor" and not as an enemy. In a Tweeter (16 July), he said: "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt."

The joint news conference after the Helsinki summit particularly stunned US and its close allies. Trump's performance in the summit seemed to have damaged US position and interests, provoked political concerns and triggered humiliation. It delighted the Russians. Thus, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the summit as "Fabulous…. better than super."

However, President Putin told the news media that "the bilateral [US-Russia] relationships are going through a complicated stage, and yet those impediments, the current tension, the tense atmosphere, essentially have no solid reasons behind it."

At the post-summit news conference with president Putin, Trump claimed he had a constructive dialogue. He accepted Putin's denial of meddling of 2016 election over that of US intelligence officials and refused to denounce Russia. He criticised the indictment of Russian election collusion by Robert Mueller as "a disaster for our country." Thus, it was a press conference where Trump failed to defend US national interests.

The President of the Brookings Institution, John Allen, a retired Marine Corps four-star General, in a Brookings Brief (19 July) stated, President Trump "has tarnished America's image as the leader of the free world and exemplar of an enlightened, liberal society."

Trump's self-centred relationship with Putin has raised suspicions that the Russians have something threatening about him. Republican Senator John McCain has said: "No prior President has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant." "The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally," remarked House Speaker Paul Ryan. In fact, US senior defence officials also repeatedly refer to Russia as a geo-political foe and main strategic threat to the United States.

But, Trump wanted to engage and reassess US-Russia relations. He hoped for "tremendous relations" with Russia which has failed. As Michael Kimmage, a professor and expert on US diplomatic history, said: "If the president genuinely cared about improving the US-Russian relationship, it is he who just killed that, by appearing so untrustworthy and so ill prepared." Trump defended himself and said: "Getting along with President Putin, getting along with Russia is positive not a negative. Now, with that being said if that doesn't work out I'll be the worst enemy he's ever had - the worst he's ever had."

According to analysts, Trump has failed to advance US's permanent national interests. In fact, the summit has opened a new ingress for Putin. Putin may be rejuvenated to pursue a more assertive foreign policy to defend his national interests.

Struggling to contain widespread bipartisan outcry, on July 18 Trump claimed he told Putin the US would not tolerate interfering in its elections. Analysts in Moscow are concerned that the extraordinary political repercussions in the United States may worsen further Russia-US bilateral relations.

On July 25, in a testimony before the US Senate Foreign Committee, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed: "With respect to Russia, the administration has been tougher than previous administrations…our approach has been…to steadily raise the costs of aggression until Vladimir Putin chooses a less confrontational foreign policy, while keeping the door open for dialogue." He also said that the US certainly would not recognise Russia's occupation of Crimea flouting international law and demanded that Ukraine's territorial integrity be restored.

While President Trump is fighting sharp backlash from the Helsinki Summit, he has postponed (July 25) his invitation to Putin to the White House for a second summit until New Year. US National Security Adviser, John Bolton said: "The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch-hunt is over."

Political analysts believe this deferment would serve to avoid another political uproar that could damage the Republican contenders in the upcoming mid-term elections in early November. But the question still remains: will the re-scheduled Washington summit bring any respect for Trump and reset US-Soviet relations?  The world will wait for that.

Dr. Kamal Uddin Ahmed is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science, University

of Dhaka.




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