Will they? Won’t they? These are the questions that are making the rounds in international political circles these days.
The “they” in question are the new US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin who may or may not hold a tete-a-tete on the margins of the G-20 summit to be hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hamburg next week.
Despite conflicting analysis of the state of world there is consensus that a Trump-Putin meeting might help reduce international tension and pave the way for the solution of some burning issues.
The reason is that, despite its internal problems, the US remains the indispensable player in most theatres of global politics while Russia, having re-cast itself as the challenger, plays the nay-sayer in chief.
The last US-Russia summit happened in September 2016 in the sunset phase of Barack Obama’s presidency, at time Putin had decided to wait for the outcome of the US presidential election. Thus the Obama-Putin summit, held in Hangzhou, China, was little more than a duet of boasting and grand-standing.
Obama tried to appear tough at the 11th hour while Putin did all he could to humiliate him. Rather than contributing to a reduction of tension, the meeting ended up heightening it by several degrees with Obama accusing Putin of trying to affect the outcome of the US presidential election in Trump’s favor.
The G20 started in 1999 by finance ministers and central bank governors of the nations concerned as a forum for global economic cooperation but, with its first summit in 2008, morphed into an informal star-chamber discussing all questions of international governance.
Because almost all nations that count are represented, the forum could claim a wider moral authority than the older G8, now downsized to G7. Thus if the US and Russia manage to reach common ground, they could count on a broader international support base for whatever they might have to propose.
When, and if, a US-Russia summit is held, three key issues are likely to dominate the agenda.
The first is as exact a definition as possible of Russia’s ambitions especially with regard to Europe.
The current Russian policy appears to be aimed at driving a wedge between the US and the European Union while doing all it can to undermine NATO and the European Union. The Kremlin’s financial and propaganda support for populist parties of both right and left with anti-American and anti-EU agendas is no mystery.
Putin may claim that his anti-EU stance is in self-defense and a response to sanctions imposed because of Ukraine. The Europeans, however, would argue that sanctions were imposed in response to Russian aggression, the annexation of Crimea and thinly disguised military intervention in Donetsk.
At this stage, Putin would want two things.
First, he wants the Western powers to swallow the loss of Crimea by Ukraine as a fait-accompli. This does not mean a de jure acknowledgement by NATO of the annexation; an implicit de facto acceptance would suffice.
This is what happened in the case of the Baltic States that Stalin annexed after World War II. Western democracies continued to regard the three states as occupied territory but in practice did nothing to force the Russians out until the fall of the Soviet Empire.
Thus, it is possible to adopt a similar posture on Crimea until the disintegration of the Russian federation itself which some American strategists believe more than possible. (The late Zbigniew Brzezinski believed Russia would break up into three states: one west of the Urals, in time becoming fully “European”, another east of the Urals and west of Siberia and dominated by Muslim Tatars and Bashkirs, and a third in Siberia with a mix of Chinese, Korean and native Siberian populations.)
The second thing Putin wants is a stop to further enlargement by NATO, especially in Europe and Transcaucasia.
The next key issue on the agenda would be Syria in the context of Russia’s renewed ambitions in the Middle East.
Putin is hastily trying to concoct a package based on “consultations” with Turkey and Iran, to present at the G20 in the hope of consolidating Russia’s position as the key foreign influence in Syria while persuading the Western powers to share the burden of an impossible situation.
Putin wants to keep the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power for a brief period during which Russian position in Syria strikes roots that no future Syrian regime would be able to ignore. To sell his package to the West, Putin will dangle the prospect of easing the Iranian mullahs out of Syria while helping Turkey, a NATO member, establish “monitoring rights” (droit de regard) inside Syrian territory along its border.
Here, too, Putin needs quick results while the West and regional allies could let him have as much Syrian rope as he covets.
The third issue on the agenda would be cyberwarfare which must be added to land, naval, submarine, and air war as a fifth form of war.
In this new form of warfare, so far, Russia has had the advantage by taking risks that Western democracies find difficult to take because of domestic opposition. In the mid and-long run, however, Russia would never be a match for Western powers’ immense scientific and technological resources. As was the case with the space-race in the 1950s and ’60, Russia may have stolen a march on the West for a while. In the end, however, it is bound to fall behind before hitting the finishing line.
The Kremlin-dominated media hail Putin’s “victories”. But these are sure to prove hollow. This reminds one of Pushkin’s ribald poems “Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters” in which the jubilant tsar fathers 40 daughters unsurpassed in beauty, intelligence and charm.
The only problem is that they all lack the one thing that makes a female; they have everything but the essential.
Poor Tsar Nikita has to beg friend and foe, especially foe, to help him correct the lack.
Whichever way you look at it, Tsar Vladimir needs the West more than the West needs him.