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The Trump – Putin call: summary and analysis

“Businesslike and substantive call” between the leaders of the US and Russia

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – blocked by the US bureaucracy from having a proper meeting with each other at the APEC summit in Vietnam – have instead had the detailed discussion they wanted with each other by telephone.

That is the conclusion one must draw from the unusually detailed summary of this conversation which has been provided by the Kremlin’s website

As agreed in advance, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President of the United States of America Donald Trump.

Current Syrian issues, in view of the military operation to destroy terrorists in Syria which is winding down, were thoroughly discussed. Vladimir Putin stressed Russia’s willingness to actively facilitate a durable political settlement in that country on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and in keeping with the agreements reached as part of the Astana meetings and the provisions of the Joint Statement approved by the presidents of Russia and the United States on November 11 at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam. It was noted, in particular, that this statement met with a positive reaction in the Middle East.

There was discussion of the need to preserve the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria, and to achieve a political settlement on the basis of principles that must be worked out as a result of the broadest possible intra-Syrian negotiation process. This is precisely the aim of Russia’s initiative to hold the National Dialogue Conference in Sochi soon.

Vladimir Putin informed Donald Trump about the main outcomes of the November 20 meeting with Bashar al-Assad, where the Syrian leader reaffirmed his commitment to the political process, constitutional reform, and presidential and parliamentary elections. In addition, emphasis was placed on the upcoming trilateral talks in Sochi on November 22 with the participation of the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey, during which steps to further normalise the situation in Syria and various aspects of the political settlement process are to be coordinated.

More broadly, the President of Russia once again spoke in favour of joint antiterrorist efforts with the United States, noting the practical importance of coordinating efforts between the special services of both countries. The US President was supportive of this idea.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump also exchanged views on the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula, emphasising that it would be advisable to find a negotiated solution to the problem by diplomatic means.

Regarding the crisis in southeast Ukraine, the President of Russia pointed to the lack of a real alternative to unconditional compliance with the Minsk agreements of February 12, 2015.

The two leaders touched on the situation in Afghanistan, which is of concern due to the growing terrorist and drug trafficking threats.

The situation surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme was also discussed. Russia’s commitment to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was noted, as it is an essential factor in ensuring regional stability and overcoming the challenge of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Both sides expressed satisfaction with the businesslike and substantive conversation.

The Kremlin says the conversation was “agreed in advance”.  One would like to know when and by whom?

My guess is that Trump and Putin agreed it during one of their short encounters at the APEC summit, when they realised that a proper summit between them was being blocked.  If so then the conversation is the fruit of their encounters at the APEC summit.

The conversation covered an unusually wide range of issues:

Syria

This was unquestionably the most important topic discussed, and the one which would have taken up the most time.

The Russians are very much at the forefront of the Syrian negotiations, having together with the Iranians effectively won the war in Syria for President Assad.

That has put the Russians in a position of great strength, which they could in theory use to dictate the terms of the settlement at the forthcoming negotiations whilst seeking to exclude the US.

Had positions been reversed, and had the US found itself in such a position of advantage, it is a certainty that it would be not be involving the Russians in the negotiations.  The US after all did not involve the Russians in the negotiations which followed the US “victories” in the 2003 Iraqi war and the 2011 Libyan war.

The Russian approach is the diametric opposite.  Instead of seeking to exclude the US from the negotiations Putin briefed Trump fully on his discussions with President Assad – someone who remains persona non grata for the US and for Donald Trump himself – and set out for Trump the Russian approach to the negotiations.

In doing so Putin followed the classic Russian approach of carefully setting out for Trump the list of international agreements the Russians have negotiated and which they are using as the building blocks of the negotiations.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and in keeping with the agreements reached as part of the Astana meetings and the provisions of the Joint Statement approved by the presidents of Russia and the United States on November 11 at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam.

Of these the most important for Trump is the Joint Statement he made with Putin at the APEC summit in Vietnam.

Trump was not involved in the earlier agreements, but will feel that he has ownership of the Joint Statement, and by agreeing to it at the APEC summit and by referring to it in his telephone conversation with Trump, Putin is giving Trump a reason to feel that he is an actual participant in the negotiations and is not just a bystander.

In reality the most important of the agreements Putin referred to during the conversation is UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council on 18th December 2015 following lengthy negotiations between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry.

The full text of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 can be found here.

Why is it so important to Putin and the Russians to involve Trump in the negotiations?  The clue to that can be found in the topics which were discussed.  For example Putin used the conversation to reaffirm to Trump

the need to preserve the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria

(bold italics added)

This language is taken directly from the preamble of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which reads as follow

Reaffirming  [the UN Security Council’s] strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic

(bold italics added)

What lies behind this is Russian concern about what I recently called the US’s Plan C: the attempt by some in the US to maintain US influence in Syria by carving out a quasi independent Kurdish statelet in northern Syria.

Plan C is already in serious trouble as a result of the defeat of the Kurds in Kirkuk by the Iraqi army. However Putin used the telephone conversation to remind Trump that Plan C – because it threatens Syria’s territorial integrity – is incompatible with the commitments the US previously took on itself when it negotiated and voted for UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Putin also used the conversation with Trump to remind Trump of his longstanding proposal – made most famously in his September 2015 UN General Assembly Speech – for a joint struggle by the US and Russia against Jihadi terrorism.

Trump has been consistently receptive to this idea – the Kremlin’s summary says he was “supportive of this idea” – but it has been consistently blocked by the US bureaucracy including especially the Pentagon.

For Putin the attraction of this proposal is not just that such a joint struggle will facilitate the global struggle against terrorism – something Putin cares about as much as Trump does – but because such a joint struggle might provide a tie between the US and Russia which might reverse the downward spiral in US-Russian relations.

Whilst Trump is “supportive of the idea” it remains to be seen whether the resistance to in Washington can be overcome.

In summary, Putin is keeping Trump informed of Russia’s Syrian diplomacy in order to limit as far as possible the danger of the US acting as a spoiler.  The idea is to get Trump to think that the US has some ownership over the eventual outcome, so that it does not act to wreck it.

At the same time Putin hopes to use this as a bridge towards improving relations.

Whether given the pathological hostility to Russia in the US these efforts can be successful is another matter.  However Putin doubtless feels that by trying he is doing his job.

Korea

The Kremlin’s summary tells us little about the discussion on the Korean issue, which suggests that this part of the conversation may have been brief.

It is quite likely that it was Trump who initiated this part of the conversation since he has made achieving a settlement of the North Korean issue the central focus of his foreign policy.

Putin will no doubt have sought an explanation from Trump of Trump’s recent decision to put North Korea back on the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and he will also have sought reassurances from Trump that the recent US fleet and troop movements near North Korea are not intended to set the scene for US military action.

Putin will also have briefed Trump about Russia’s recent negotiations with the North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui, and he will no doubt have reminded Trump of the Chinese-Russian proposal for a double-freeze.

Trump for his part will no doubt have sought – and received – reassurances from Putin that Russia will enforce the sanctions the UN Security Council has recently imposed on North Korea following that country’s intercontinental ballistic missile and hydrogen bomb tests.

Ukraine

Donald Trump hinted during the 2016 election campaign that for him the conflict in Ukraine came close to the bottom of his list of foreign policy priorities.  However he has encountered fierce resistance from his bureaucracy, which continues to be committed to Ukraine, and which continues to use the conflict there to mobilise opposition to Russia in Europe.

Recently hardliners in the US have been floating proposals to send weapons – notably Javelin anti-tank missiles – to Ukraine, whilst an article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that some US officials were trying to pressure the Russians into agreeing to a force of 20,000 “peacekeepers” to restore the Donbass to Ukrainian control.

Needless to say the Russians have emphatically rejected both proposals, and Putin followed this up by taking the unprecedented step of telephoning Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky – the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics – and having details of this call posted on the Kremlin’s website in what was clearly intended as a show of support.

The proposals to flood the Donbass with ‘peacekeepers’ and to send arms to Ukraine are actually inconsistent with the February 2015 Minsk Agreement as the Russians never tire of pointing out, and the Kremlin’s summary of Putin’s conversation with Trump shows that Putin used the opportunity provided by the call to point this out to him

Regarding the crisis in southeast Ukraine, the President of Russia pointed to the lack of a real alternative to unconditional compliance with the Minsk agreements of February 12, 2015.

My impression is that Trump is not interested in the conflict in Ukraine, in which he rightly sees no national or security interest for the US.  Left to himself he would probably gladly walk away from it, as would many of those who supported him in the 2016 election.

With the Russiagate affair still ongoing, that is politically impossible.

What that means in practical terms is that Trump will have listened to what Putin had to say and will have taken note of it, but this will have no immediate effect on US policy.

If Trump is one day able to put Russiagate behind him and consolidate his position in Washington that may change.  However that is not the situation now.

Afghanistan

The last few months have witnessed a drumbeat of accusations in the US that the Russians are covertly assisting the Taliban by sending arms and economic aid to them.  The Russians categorically deny these accusations, though they admit to holding talks with the Taliban who they are gradually coming to see as a bulwark against the spread of ISIS to Afghanistan.

The Kremlin’s summary suggests that the part of the telephone conversation between Trump and Putin which touched on Afghanistan was brief, and that these accusations were not discussed in any detail if they were discussed at all

The two leaders touched on the situation in Afghanistan, which is of concern due to the growing terrorist and drug trafficking threats.

The reference to “drug trafficking threats” possibly refers to the longstanding Russian complaint that the US is not doing enough to suppress heroin production and trafficking in Afghanistan.  A large part of this heroin is transported across Russia to Europe, causing a serious heroin problem in Russia, and the Russians have been placing the blame for this on the blind eye that they say that the US has been turning to heroin production in Afghanistan.

It is quite likely that Putin raised this issue with Trump whilst repeating Russia’s concern that ISIS, as it is being driven out of Syria and Iraq, is now starting to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.

Though these are concerns Trump is known to share, the terse part of the Kremlin’s summary of this section of their conversation makes it impossible to say what his reaction was.

It is not impossible that the reason this part of the summary is so terse is because there were disagreements, which the Kremlin does not want to publicise.

Iran

On the subject of Iran, Trump and Putin have diametrically opposite views.

Trump sees Iran as a hotbed of terrorism; Putin sees Iran as Russia’s strategic partner and ally in the struggle against terrorism.

Trump considers the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) which placed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme a “bad deal”, and has recently decertified Iran because of its supposed breaches of it.

Putin unequivocally supports the JCPOA and denies that Iran has committed any breaches of it.

The Kremlin’s summary makes no effort to hide the disagreement

Russia’s commitment to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was noted, as it is an essential factor in ensuring regional stability and overcoming the challenge of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

No word is said here of what opinions Trump expressed, though it is a certainty they were the opposite of the ones held by Putin and Russia.  Doubtless Trump and Putin had a forthright exchange of opinions on this issue.

General

Unusually, the Kremlin website tells us something of the atmosphere of the call.

Both sides expressed satisfaction with the businesslike and substantive conversation.

It is a commonplace in the US and Europe that Donald Trump is terrible at diplomacy.

In reality his interactions with world leaders during his recent Asia tour and his conversations with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping tell a different story.

Though Trump is extremely inexperienced and many of his ideas about foreign policy are frankly amateur, he nonetheless comes across as warm and approachable in a way that his cold and aloof predecessor Barack Obama never did.

The result is that other world leaders – especially those outside Europe – like him in a way that they never liked Barack Obama, and are prepared to cut him slack, even when they disagree with him.

That suggests that if the US bureaucracy was prepared to work with Trump and not against him, and instead of seeking to undermine him at every turn sought to help him gain the experience and understanding of world affairs he needs to do his job, then he could in time become an extremely effective foreign policy President.

Trump’s interactions with Xi Jinping and Putin are cases in point.  As the leaders of the two other Great Powers they are the two most important individuals in the world with whom the US and its President must deal.

Trump seems to understand this, and despite a catalogue of misunderstandings he seems to be gradually edging towards a better understanding of the Chinese leader.  As for Putin, Trump’s few interactions with him at a personal level have always gone well.  The “businesslike and substantive” telephone conversation he has just had with Putin is a case in point.

As for Putin, his conversation with Trump was just part of a day’s work.  That day was extremely busy.  As well as the conversation with Trump, Putin had meetings with President Assad of Syria and President Zeman of the Czech Republic, and also had telephone conversations with President Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.  Today (22nd November 2017) he will be meeting President Erdogan of Turkey and President Rouhani of Iran.

It will take many years of hard learning and hard work before Donald Trump can conduct diplomacy at that sort of pace.

What do you think?

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