You've Heard the Hysteria About the Trump-Putin Summit. Now Consider the Facts.

Ever since FDR, US presidents have met regularly with the man in charge of the Kremlin in order to manage and contain a potentially destructive relationship. But Trump's critics resent his presidency so much that they won't cut him any slack.

Washington: Even before Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin ended their press conference after their summit in Helsinki, the dam of outrage had burst. Hysterical pundits, opinionated anchors, motivated intelligence officers and even field reporters were denouncing Trump for not being tough on Putin.

It was as if Trump had lost America’s collective manhood to a former KGB spy – a man, in their opinion, more deserving of sanctions than support. They used some of the harshest language – “disgraceful,” “treasonous,” “surrender,” “shameful,” “stunning” “tragic mistake” “dangerous,” “imbecilic,” “high crimes and misdemeanors” – to describe Trump’s conduct. A Democratic Congressman even appealed to “military folks” to save the country from Trump, calling for a coup in all but name.

Attacks also came from the Republicans, starting with Senator John McCain, seen as a definitive voice on matters of national security. He called Trump’s performance at the press conference “one of the most disgraceful by an American president in memory.”

Washington’s elite were especially perturbed by Trump undermining his own intelligence agencies and their finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections, and by the moral equivalence he drew by blaming both the United States and Russia for the current state of bilateral relations.

‘Kangaroo court’

Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton University and a preeminent scholar, compared the rabid reaction Trump’s press conference generated to “mob violence” and a “kangaroo court” pronouncing judgment. “I have never seen anything like it in my life,” he said in a rare television interview.

“This is the president of the United States, doing what every other president before him since FDR in 1943 with Stalin (has done) … meeting with the head of the Kremlin,” Cohen explained. All US presidents have met the leader of the Kremlin “for one existential purpose: to avoid war between the nuclear superpowers.”

In Cohen’s considered judgment, relations between the US and Russia today are “more dangerous than they have ever been,” including during the Cuban missile crisis. “I want my president to do – I didn’t vote for this president – what every other president has done. Sit down and walk back the conflicts that could lead to war, whether they be in Syria, Ukraine, the Baltic nations or accusations of cyber attacks.”

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1987. Credit: Wikimedia

He said the critics resent the idea of Trump as president so much that they have lost “all sense of American national security.” The question is whether they prefer impeaching Trump to trying to avert war with a nuclear Russia. “That is the bottom line and that is where we’re at today,” Cohen added.

Washington doesn’t seem to have any mind space for the bigger questions, such is the anger against Russia for alleged meddling. Apart from Cohen, there was one other important voice against the noise. Republican senator, Rand Paul, said, “I think it’s a good idea for us to have conversation even with our adversaries.” But Paul’s motives for defending Trump were immediately questioned in a piece in the Washington Post.

New lobbyists for Cold War

What the current state of affairs shows is that the anti-détente lobby is alive and well. It spans both political parties but is stronger within the Democratic Party, which seems to have become the party of continuing Cold War.

The narrative that Russia is to blame for everything that’s gone wrong since the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summits is historically incorrect, prejudicial to peace and a trigger for the current Cold War.

Mainstream media have perpetuated this narrative without serious examination of the record. The two pillars – the New York Times and the Washington Post – have blotted out inconvenient truths whether wittingly or unwittingly or considered them not newsworthy enough. Television is, of course, in a class by itself for the never-ending parade of commentators who unleash some of the most vitriolic and ahistorical analysis.

So first things first: the maximum outrage has been about Trump not giving due importance to the indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers last Friday by Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russia hacking the 2016 elections and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians.

Earlier in February, a grand jury charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for alleged interference but the indictment stopped of claiming the interference had changed the outcome of the elections.

A reminder: an indictment is basically a set of assertions made by a prosecutor without accompanying evidence, which will be presented during a trial or in a report to the US Congress.

Besides, Mueller – today a hero for the Democrats and an unquestioning media – has anything but a sterling record. As the FBI director, he was right beside former president George W. Bush and former vice president, Dick Cheney, making a bogus case for the Iraq war in 2003.

A month before the US invasion, he told the US Congress, “Secretary (Colin) Powell presented evidence last week that Baghdad has failed to disarm its weapons of mass destruction, wilfully attempting to evade and deceive the international community. Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material.”

Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI special agent, prompted him to do the right thing but “he remained quiet.” Ditto for the then deputy attorney general James Comey, the aw-shucks FBI director fired by Trump and a recent media star.

Trump’s Russia record

Another charge against Trump is that he is Putin’s puppet. Looking at the past 18 months of his presidency one might get the opposite impression.

Trump approved the largest sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, something the Obama administration didn’t authorise; bombed Syria after the alleged use of chemical weapons; expelled the largest number of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain; sanctioned Russian oligarchs close to Putin, and most recently criticised the Nord Stream 2 Russian pipeline to Germany, a project critical for Moscow. Trump called Berlin “a captive to Russia” four days before his summit with Putin.

It defies logic to call him a puppet but for the Washington establishment, he only does Putin’s bidding because the Russian president has “kompromat” on him.

Going back in time to the history of US-Russia relations is extremely instructive. Declassified US documents are often very helpful in clarifying the mind and raising questions about dominant and adamant narratives.

Broken promises on NATO

Last year the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a detailed account of why and when things started going wrong between Washington and Moscow.

According to declassified US documents, George H.W. Bush promised Gorbachev during the 1989 Malta summit that the US would not take advantage of the unrest/revolutions in Eastern Europe to harm Soviet interests. His secretary of state, James Baker, was more explicit a year later, assuring the Soviet leader that NATO would not go “one inch eastward” beyond a unified Germany. The Germans gave the same message.

Gorbachev, according to a letter by Baker, said, “Certainly any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” By implication, the existing boundaries were acceptable to the Soviets.

Douglas Hurd, the then British foreign secretary, reinforced the US and German message, telling the Soviet leader that Britain recognized the importance of “doing nothing to prejudice Soviet interests and dignity.”

To emphasise, these assurances came from the US, Germany, Britain and France – the major pillars of NATO – not from rogue states. In fact, such was the spirit of cooperation that former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady, also told Gorbachev in June 1990 that “we must find ways to give the Soviet Union confidence that its security would be assured.”

With this bouquet of assurances, the Soviet leader was able to counter the hardliners in his government who opposed “glasnost.”

Fast forward to July 16, 2018, the day Trump met Putin in Helsinki. One of the questions Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Putin in a post-summit interview hailed as “tough” was about NATO.

Wallace asked what the Russian leader’s reaction would be to a future inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin said he would react “negatively… extremely negatively.”

So what happened between 1990, the year of giving assurances to the Soviets that NATO won’t expand beyond Germany, and 2018, when Putin is being asked about Ukraine and Georgia, both countries on the immediate borders of Russia? Certainly not what the western leaders had promised Gorbachev.

Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia and Montenegro all joined NATO. The expansion was rapid and it changed the tone, tenor and texture of the security debate. Instead of a unified Europe less dependent on its military arm, NATO became more toothy and aggressive.

Why did it happen? The answer by the Washington establishment is that former East Bloc countries wanted to join NATO, political changes were too rapid and Eastern and Central European countries were asserting their sovereign choice.

Besides, the West had made no “political or legally binding commitments” not to extend beyond the borders of a unified Germany. A 2015 article in NATO Review claims Russian complaints are a “myth.”  Based on a reading of declassified documents, it’s hard to see the myth.

Cohen, a Russia scholar and author of several books, has a different explanation. He says the origins of the new Cold War lie between 1989-90, the time period when the last Cold War was said to have ended. Three key leaders – Reagan, Gorbachev and the elder Bush – publicly agreed that the old Cold War had ended through negotiations and “without any losers.”

But in 1992, Bush changed the terminology and declared that “America won the Cold War.” Thus arose “the US triumphalism and sense of entitlement that has informed Washington’s policies toward post-Soviet Russia ever since,” according to Cohen.

Decline and rise of Russia

Bill Clinton’s administration took this triumphalism to new heights in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the serious economic crisis in Russia and a weak Boris Yeltsin. Scores of US advisers were camped in Moscow advising an ailing Yeltsin, even writing textbooks and laws, according to Cohen.

US meddling reached its height in the rigged 1996 re-election of Yeltsin. The plundering of Russia’s assets led to the emergence of new oligarchs but Washington saw this as progress and the pains of birthing democracy. Russians sank into poverty as the country suffered an economic depression ultimately ending in a financial collapse in 1999. Yeltsin resigned and a backlash against the West followed.

Yet, after the 9/11 attacks, Putin supported the US war to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan even though the US had financed and directed the war against the Soviets in that country in the 1980s using the mujahideen via Pakistan.

What Putin got in return was more NATO expansion and neocons in Washington going full force on “democracy promotion” inside Russia. Two proxy wars – in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine since 2014 – followed alongside NATO’s buildup in the Baltics on Russia’s borders.

Cohen writes that US policies over the past two decades have decimated the “once robust pro-American lobby in Moscow politics and the previously widespread pro-American sentiments among Russian citizens.” He cites other instances of what the Russian elite now call examples of “deceit” – the 2002 unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Barack Obama’s broken promise that he would not use a 2011 UN Security Council resolution to depose Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But it is the original broken promise to Gorbachev not to expand NATO that shattered the nascent trust because as Russians see it, today they are virtually encircled by the US-led military grouping. The Washington establishment should try to imagine a scenario with Canada and Mexico as members of a Russia or China-led alliance.

Finally, it remains an abiding mystery why Russia triggers such intense reactions in the Washington establishment and Saudi Arabia doesn’t, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks came from that country.

Russia is not even a communist country anymore while China is both led by the Communist party and is the real challenger to US power. China has arguably infiltrated US institutions to a greater and more harmful extent in terms of stealing defence secrets and coopting the best US corporations than the Soviets ever did or the Russians ever can.

Cohen reminds those used to seeing diplomacy in ‘civilisational’ terms that in addition, Russia is a ‘Christian’ country, a fact that seems to animate US politicians in many cases. It was a US ally in World War II – the Soviets defeated Nazi Germany in Europe while the US defeated Japan in the Pacific.

The Soviets bore the brunt of Hitler’s killing machine, losing more than 20 million of their people, including an estimated 11 million soldiers. They took 95% of the military casualties of the three major powers – the US, Britain and the Soviet Union.

Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist best known for exposing the global surveillance programmes of the US and Britain based on Edward Snowden’s revelations, questions the outrage over Russian meddling. In a recent radio programme, he said, “The United States and Russia have been interfering in one another’s domestic politics since at least the end of World War II, to say nothing of what they do in far more extreme ways to the internal politics of other countries.”

“The United States funds oppositional groups inside Russia. The United States interferes in Russian politics and they interfere in their cyber systems and they invade their email systems and they invade all kinds of communications all the time. To treat this as though it’s some kind of aberrational event, I think, is really kind of naïve.”

Why the Democrats lost the 2016 election was because of the interplay of a variety of reasons. The party was identified with globalisation, Hollywood, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the billionaires therein. Fake Facebook accounts and email hacks by Russian troll farms didn’t cost Hillary Clinton the presidency; a disconnect with working class Americans did.

It’s a debate the Democratic Party still finds hard to have, and CNN pundits don’t force the issue either. It’s much easier to blame it all on Putin.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.