Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Discussing the apparent decision to hold a prepared Trump-Putin meeting in July, Cohen points out there have been dozens of such US-Soviet/Russian top leadership events since the precedent was set by FDR and Stalin in 1943, during World War II. That was a meeting of allies, and included Winston Churchill. After the war, all the rest have been between the two Cold War “superpower” rivals or purportedly post–Cold War leaders. Every American president after FDR participated in at least one summit with his Soviet or Russian counterpart, and some presidents in multiple ones, including Eisenhower with Khrushchev, Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev, and Clinton with Yeltsin.
If “summits” with large agendas and all of their political and media rituals are distinguished from occasional meetings on the “sidelines” of other events, the former have usually had several purposes: to solidify a mutual national-security partnership between the two leaders, typically on behalf of improving relations, or what became known as détente; to enhance both leaders’ political standing at home and in the world; to send a message to their respective elites and bureaucracies that obstructing, let alone sabotaging, the leader’s détente policy will no longer be tolerated; and by way of announced agreements and positive media coverage to broaden domestic elite and popular support for détente. Summit agendas have varied over the decades, some shaped by ongoing regional or other issues, but one item has been constant from Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the 1950s to Obama and then–Russian President Medvedev in 2009: managing and reducing existential dangers inherent in the “nuclear superpower arms race.”
Full summits have had various results. Some had few consequences for better or worse. The third Eisenhower-Khrushchev meeting in Paris in 1960 was aborted by the Soviet shoot-down of a US U-2 spy plane (sent, some think, by “deep state” foes of Eisenhower’s détente policy). Several summits were historic achievements, at least eventually. The Eisenhower-Khrushchev “spirit of Camp David” in the 1950s diminished the mutually isolating Cold War that prevailed until Stalin’s death in 1953, opening up new possibilities for “peaceful coexistence.” Nixon and Brezhnev established the modern tradition of détente, in the 1970s, including the expanded role of summits in that process. The multiple Reagan-Bush-Gorbachev summits claimed to have ended the Cold War. Several summits did more longer-term harm than good, particularly the highly touted Clinton-Yeltsin meetings, which were mostly decorative covering for Clinton’s winner-take-all approach to a weakened post-Soviet Russia; and Obama’s with Medvedev—the “reset” summit—which was badly conceived and conducted by the White House. During his 18 years as Russia’s leader, Putin has had two full summits with American presidents, though both are mostly forgotten or ill-remembered: with Clinton in Moscow in 2000 and with George W. Bush in Washington and at the latter’s Texas ranch in 2001. Clinton and Bush spoke positively about Putin at the time, but, of course, do so no longer. (Therein lies a serious debate yet to be had as to who and what changed, and why.)
If the summit with Putin happens in July, it will be Trump’s first with him, though the two had a long “sit-down” at the G-20 meeting in Germany a year ago. A Trump-Putin summit will resemble its many predecessors in various ways, but also be unique in two unprecedented respects. Rarely if ever before, as Cohen has previously argued, have US-Russian relations been so perilous. And never before would an American president have gone to a Soviet or post-Soviet summit with so much defamatory opposition and so little political support at home, indeed so defiled in his capacity as commander in chief. Two years of still-unproven Russiagate allegations that Trump is a “Putin puppet,” a “quisling,” or an otherwise “treasonous” president, are without precedent in the 75 years of such crucial meetings. As already adumbrated in commentary on a possible summit, any Trump-Putin agreements that enhance American and international security, of the kind for which previous US presidents were applauded, are likely to be denounced by most representatives of the bipartisan political-media establishment at best as “a grand illusion” and at worst as the treacherous acts of Russia’s “useful idiot,” as a “reward” to Putin for his misdeeds, as “Putin…essentially being given a free hand,” as “upsetting our closest allies in Europe.” If Trump’s laudable summit breakthrough with North Korean leader Kim was widely traduced as incompetent, security cooperation with Putin will be construed as sinister.
Cohen ends with two larger points:
§ As he has argued previously, Russiagate, by crippling Trump’s presidential duty to cope with the gravest international threats, has itself become the number-one threat to American national security, a reality for which the Democratic Party, though not solely, bears a very large responsibility. In other circumstances, we might reasonably hope that a Trump-Putin summit would begin to reduce the dangers inherent in the new nuclear arms, the trip-wire proximity of US and Russian forces and their proxies in Syria, the smoldering civil and proxy wars in Ukraine, the growing NATO buildup and provocative military exercises on Russia’s borders, and the near-vaporizing of Washington-Moscow diplomacy by the large-scale expulsions of diplomats on both sides. (Regarding politically charged sanctions, Trump does best leaving this to the European Union, which must vote, also in July, on whether to continue the ones it imposed on Moscow.) Summits have traditionally diminished such crises, but the ever-looming Russiagate crisis makes this “leadership meeting at the top” unprecedented in this regard as well.
§ Nor is Putin himself immune. Even apart from the lack of any facts or logic supporting the charge that he “attacked American democracy” during the 2016 presidential election, a failed or discredited summit would diminish his own political position at home. Hard-liners in Russia’s military-security (and intellectual) establishment continue to believe that Putin has never really shed his admitted early “illusions” about negotiating with an always-treacherous Washington and, still more, that the Russiagate-plagued Trump would be unable to carry out any commitments made at the summit. Meanwhile, Putin’s popular ratings at home, while still very high, are being eroded by a long-overdue decision to gradually raise the pension age for Russian citizens—from 55 for women and 60 for men, an entitlement taken for granted for many decades. However rational and necessary the decision may be, popular protests are already underway and spreading.
Given the unprecedentedly perilous nature of US-Russian relations today, a Trump-Putin summit is imperative. Nevertheless, efforts will continue to be made, publicly and in the shadows, to prevent it from happening. If Russiagate or another “scandal” does so, or subsequently undermines any of its achievements, Trump might not try again. Nor might Putin. What then?