Helsinki Summit: Donald Trump's pandering to Vladimir Putin could have its origins in a very sinister place

Donald Trump arrived in Moscow on Monday, following a vigorous couple of days of golf in Scotland, which in turn were preceded by a State visit to London (during which he told Theresa May to sue the European Union) and the NATO Summit that saw the US president lay down the law to his country's allies. Their stingy behaviour would no longer do, he reminded them as he hiked his defence spending demand to four percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There had been plenty of commentary about how wantonly the president had been alienating US allies and how eager he was to have warm relations with Vladimir Putin, but it is unlikely anyone—barring, presumably, those in the know of how the real estate tycoon-turned-politician's mind works—had so much as a clue that he was going to come across looking so much in awe of the Russian president.

We have no way of knowing what transpired in the closed-door meeting between the two presidents, so the following analysis will be based solely on the document titled 'Remarks by President Trump and President Putin of the Russian Federation in Joint Press Conference' released by the White House.

 Helsinki Summit: Donald Trumps pandering to Vladimir Putin could have its origins in a very sinister place

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting on Monday. AP

An observation that jumps out of the transcript first is—and this could well be down to something being lost in translation—that while Putin referred to his interactions with Trump as 'negotiations' (he did so five times), Trump referred to the same exchange as a 'dialogue' (he did so on six occasions in his briefing alone).

This could be useful in trying to understand how the duo approached this interaction: For Trump, it was probably a chance to get a conversation going: Possibly in the absence of any clear demands and with a view to cracking whatever 'deal' he could; while for Putin, it was a chance to haggle for what he wants (relaxation of sanctions, easing off on Syria etc).

Tenuous? Perhaps. But the idea that Trump was on his best behaviour and out to appease Putin grew increasingly unshakeable.

"But our (US-Russia) relationship has never been worse than it is now," said the US president, before adding somewhat facetiously, "However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that." There's no doubt, he really believed it, because Trump essentially improved relations by offering up no resistance to Putin. At least that's the impression the press briefing gave. Let's take a look at the two statements:

Putin spoke warmly about the efforts to rebuild US-Russia relations, but spoke critically of the US in terms of not being decisive enough in getting Ukraine to comply with the Minsk Agreements and in terms of Washington's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (nuclear deal) with Iran. He lavished detail on Syria and called on American troops to work with Russian ones in "crushing terrorists" (using Bashar al-Assad's own words) in the south and southwest of the country.

Trump, meanwhile, spent time talking about the importance of diplomacy, the history of the relationship, what a productive US-Russia relationship could give the world and so on. He then quickly blitzed through the topics addressed: Raising the issue of Russian interference in elections, providing updates on his meeting with Kim Jong-un, namedropping Islamic terror and then came this little nugget:

"I also emphasised the importance of placing pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions and to stop its campaign of violence throughout the area, throughout (West Asia).

As we discussed at length, the crisis in Syria is a complex one. Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. I also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against (the Islamic State). We have just about eradicated (Islamic State) in the area."

Compared to his normal bluster on Syria and Iran, Trump seemed extremely subdued and dare-I-say diplomatic when speaking of these two countries. Trump definitely appeared to be on his best behaviour.

Soon after, came the question-and-answer part of the press interaction. And the first of those questions was about Russian gas, and not for the first time that day, the US president backpedalled. "Germany is captive of Russia because it is getting so much of its energy from Russia... Everybody's talking about it all over the world, they're saying we're paying you billions of dollars to protect you but you're paying billions of dollars to Russia... Germany is totally controlled by Russia," said Trump last Wednesday in Brussels.

And in Helsinki, it turned into "Actually, I called him a competitor. And a good competitor he is. And I think the word 'competitor' is a: It’s a compliment. I think that we will be competing, when you talk about the pipeline. I’m not sure necessarily that it’s in the best interest of Germany or not, but that was a decision that they made. We’ll be competing—as you know, the United States is now, or soon will be—but I think it actually is right now — the largest in the oil and gas world." He then bumbled through some more words, strung together to resemble a sentence, the way only Trump can. Putin then chipped in and stuck to a dispassionate assessment of gas, its prices and the international market.

The next question related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. "I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago — a long time, frankly, before I got to office," he began and then after a traditional Trumpesque ramble, he wrapped up with, "We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe."

How nuclear power and interference in elections is connected is as yet unknown.

Putin kept all the newfound 'bonhomie' between the two presidents in perspective by saying, "Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America, and I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation." He followed this up by offering the services of his investigators to probe Russians suspected to have tampered with the election and send the relevant information across to the US, on the condition that the US reciprocate. The first thing it could do, Putin added, was to question people working with Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder.

Browder, in turn, wrote in TIME, "I’m lodged so firmly under Putin’s skin because I’m the person responsible for getting the Magnitsky Act passed in the United States in 2012." This law empowers the US to freeze assets and ban visas of human-rights violators around the world, and could potentially have harmed the interests of some of Putin's cronies. Regardless, the Russian president articulated what we wanted without any hemming and hawing.

On the topic of Russian interference: "So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer; he offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer," offered Trump. That this 'incredible offer' is ripped to shreds by Browder in the article linked above is one thing; another entirely is Trump's assertion that the Russian president was "extremely strong and powerful in his denial". His admiration was unmistakable.

Putin, on the other hand, took the opportunity to target George Soros: A man whose role in the Maidan protests led to the Ukrainian crisis, and earned him the ire of the Russian ruling regime. "Do you believe the United States is a democracy? And if so, if it is a democratic State, then the final conclusion in this kind of dispute an only be delivered by a trial by the court, not by the executive — by the law enforcement... Well, you have a lot of individuals in the United States—take George Soros, for instance — with multibillion capitals, but it doesn’t make him—his position, his posture—the posture of the United States? No, it does not. Well, it’s the same case." Once again, articulating what he wanted, without beating around the bush.

And finally, the question of leverage was raised. Just what does Putin hold over Trump's head to turn someone who is normally a Rottweiler into a Poodle? (If not a 'wet noodle', as succinctly noted by Arnold Schwarzenegger). A journalist asked Putin, "And then secondly, sir, does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?" The Russian president gave it some thought, laughed and undid his earpiece as he began his response. It may not amount to anything, but it looked ominous.

"Yeah, I did hear these rumours that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr Trump when he was visiting Moscow," Putin replied, "Now, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect. But back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."

Let's stop here for a second because something doesn't seem right.

Through the questions on energy, Syria, Iran and the 2016 US elections, Putin spoke candidly, perhaps even uncomfortably so. Mentioning Browder and Soros would serve to embarrass the US and the Russian president certainly did so knowingly. But his assertion that he did not even know that Trump was in Moscow is dubious. November 2013 saw the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow. The then real estate tycoon was in the city desperate to meet Putin with a view to expanding operations to Russia. According to the book Russian Roulette by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Putin's right-hand man and press spokesman Dmitry Peskov met with Trump—who, a couple of days later, tweeted his excitement about meeting Putin—before the Miss Universe event.

On the day of the event, the book notes, Peskov informed Trump that Putin, who "very much wanted to meet Trump" was going to be unable to make it to the pageant, but his senior aide Vladimir Kozhin would be in attendance. And there was the small matter of a gift Putin had for Trump.

With all of this in mind, it is a bit strange that a former intelligence officer—something to which Putin alluded in one of his responses at Monday's press conference—would not have known Trump was in his city. And that makes Putin's smokescreen of a denial far from 'strong and powerful', but highly suspicious.

And therein probably lies a clue about the leverage he has over Trump to turn the gnashing and gurning US president into a "little fanboy" (thanks again, Schwarzenegger). Given the complete transformation of Trump and his 'treasonous' remarks, it may not be a stretch to imagine it's a fairly sinister bit of leverage.

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 18:15:34 IST