On a substantive level, it is impossible to understand the outcry against President Donald Trump following his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Trump met with Putin because as president, he is required to meet with the leader of Russia just as every U.S. president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to meet with his counterpart at the Kremlin.
U.S. national security and indeed, international security are dependent on the leaders of the two powerful nations developing cooperative relations. The ability of U.S. and Russian leaders to work together plays a key role in preventing another world war. It would have been a dereliction of duty if Trump had not met with Putin.
This brings us to the substance of the meeting, which was exceedingly positive and constructive.
Since Putin ascended to power as Russian President in 2000, there has been an ongoing debate over what type of leader he is. Many commentators and area experts have argued that Putin is an ideologue, whose ambition is to spread Russian influence worldwide at America’s expense. Certainly there are people in Putin’s inner circles who harbor such ambitions.
Many other commentators and experts have argued that to the contrary, Putin is interested in power for power’s sake. He is not moved by a grand vision of Russian global dominance. Rather, he is moved by the twin forces of financial interests and nationalism. He seeks to empower Russia, but is capable of cutting deals with whoever makes him the best offer. In this interpretation of Putin, he is someone who is willing to work with the U.S. or Israel against Iran, if they make him a better deal than Tehran. By the same token, he is willing to attenuate Russian ties with China in favor of stronger relations with the U.S. is he believes that his interests are better served by Washington than Beijing.
In his opening remarks, Putin put an official end to the debate over his intentions. “The Cold War is a thing of the past,” he declared.
“The era of acute ideological confrontation of the two countries is a thing of the remote past – it’s a vestige of the past.”
If Putin’s statement of his intentions and his outlook were the only thing to have come out of the summit, it would have more than justified the meeting. But that was only the beginning.
Two critical issues, Iran’s presence in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, were the subject of a significant amount of attention from Trump and Putin during the press conference. Their remarks on both subjects made clear just how critical the meeting was for U.S. national security interests and for global stability in the short and long-term.
Before they met in Helsinki, the prospect of war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah in Syria was all but certain. On Monday, Syrian regime forces — which are dominated by Iran through its Revolutionary Guard Corps officers, Hezbollah units, and Iranian-controlled Shiite militia forces — began their press to seize control over the Quneitra region on the Syrian side of the border with Israel.
If Iran is able to entrench its own forces, or Hezbollah forces, in Syria generally, and along the border with Israel specifically, Israel will have to go to war to eject Iran by force. Israel simply cannot accept a strategic environment that involves a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, particularly given that Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah.
In their remarks, both Putin and Trump said that they are committed to Israel’s security. Putin said that he accepts Israel’s position that the 1974 disengagement of forces agreement between Israel and Syria must be implemented. The agreement bars Syrian military forces from deploying to the border with Israel and limits their deployment in the area adjacent to it. Trump stated outright that the U.S. supports Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching its forces in Syria.
Both leaders also expressed their admiration and respect for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
These remarks were significant on two levels. First, they reduced the prospect of war by communicating key messages to Iran and Hezbollah.
Trump’s statement that,“the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS” dovetailed a statement by National Security Advisor John Bolton ahead of the summit. Speaking Sunday with ABC News, Bolton said, “I think the president has made it clear that we are there [in Syria] until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East.”
Putin may or may not help Israel in such a war. He may or may not work with the U.S. But he will not fight on Iran’s side.
While it is unlikely that these statements will suffice to convince Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw their forces from Syria, it is clear enough that the summit reduced the prospects of war in the immediate term.
And again, if that was the only thing accomplished at the summit, its importance would be incontestable.
The second reason that the Trump-Putin meeting was significant in the Iranian context is that it called into question the long-term viability of the Russian-Iranian partnership.
Days before the Helsinki summit, Ali Akbar Velayati, the top international affairs advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, landed in Moscow for a meeting with Putin. In a press statement before the meeting, Velayati praised ties Iranian-Russian ties, referring to them as “a strategic relationship.”
Speaking of Iran’s cooperation with Russia in Syria, Velayati said, “Only a strategic and long-term relationship with Russia can continue this cooperation.”
So if Putin indicated a willingness to cut a deal with the U.S. and Israel in Syria, then the implication is that he is willing to attenuate Russian-Iranian ties in favor of Russian-American and Russian-Israeli ties. The minimal price for those ties is Israeli-U.S. acceptance of the survival of Assad’s regime in Syria. Netanyahu indicated last week that he is willing to accept Putin’s position.
Here, too, if this were the only positive result of the summit, its undertaking would have been more than justified.
To understand just how significant Trump’s achievements in relation to Russia’s relations with Iran and its position in Syria are, it is important to notice where the U.S. stood in relation to both issues when Trump entered office.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. accepted Russia’s alliance with Iran in Syria and beyond. When Russia deployed its forces to Syria on behalf of Assad and Iran in 2015, then-President Barack Obama did not seek to constrain Russia’s actions. He did not try to limit Iran’s deployment in Syria. To the contrary, he presented Iran as an U.S. ally in the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, even though Iran used that campaign to entrench its military presence and control in both countries.
More broadly speaking, Obama joined with Russia in enabling Iran to become a nuclear-armed state by concluding the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015. The fact that Trump was able to convince Putin to support Israel’s efforts against Iran in Syria after abandoning the nuclear deal in May, despite Putin’s continued support for the nuclear deal, was a major achievement.
The second area where Trump achieved a major breakthrough in Helsinki is North Korea. It is far from clear that Trump’s effort to cut a deal with North Korea can survive Pyongyang’s latest anti-American diatribes and the evidence of its continued nuclear operations. But what is clear is that none of North Korea’s efforts could continue without Chinese support. Nuclear armed North Korea is China’s most powerful – and dangerous – proxy.
During the previous three administrations, Russia has consistently partnered with China in relation to U.S. multiparty talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. But during the Helsinki summit, Putin expressed strong support for America’s goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
It is certainly possible that Putin’s statement had little substance behind it. His actions in the coming weeks and months will make clear if that is the case.
But if Putin is serious about supporting U.S. efforts to coerce North Korea to denuclearize, his position could signal a weakening of Russia’s ties with China in favor of Russian-U.S. relations. It would be a sound strategic move for Putin. China represents a massive threat to Russia, and using ties with the U.S. as a means to check Chinese power would be a reasonable position for Putin to adopt. If Trump has in any way convinced Putin to even consider such a move, it would mark a massive geopolitical development on multiple levels. It would also mark Trump as one of the greatest American statesmen in history.
Again, while only time will tell just how significant Putin’s statement on North Korea actually was, but its potential significance is massive.
And again, if this statement by Putin were the only substantive accomplishment of the summit, the summit would still have been a highly positive, significant event.
This, then brings, us to the hysterical condemnations that Trump has been inundated with since Monday by the U.S. media, by former senior Obama administration national security officials, and by Democrats.
The very notion that a U.S. president commits treason by seeking a cooperative relationship with the head of Russia is absurd. Given the stakes of the two leaders’ relationship, it is also dangerous.
Statements accusing Trump of treason and calling for the military to overthrow him are terrifying. They demonstrate that Trump’s opponents are so obsessed with delegitimizing his presidency, and presumably with impeaching him that they are willing to risk a world war to achieve their domestic political goals.
When we consider the hysteria of Trump’s critics on the one hand, and Trump’s extraordinary accomplishments in Helsinki on the other, we need to be thankful that Trump was willing as he said, “to take a political risk in pursuit of peace,” rather than “risk peace in pursuit of politics.”
The U.S. and the world benefited greatly from his courage.