The real meaning of the Putin – Trump meeting: what the US president could have promised behind closed doors

Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Vygaudas Ušackas
DELFI montažas

What are the consequences of the US president’s trip to Europe? Donald Trump‘s controversial appearance before NATO and pandering to Vladimir Putin continues to receive mixed responses. There was no lack of debate over this on Delfi TV between Vygaudas Ušackas and Laurynas Kasčiūnas.

Concerns prior to Donald Trump’s visit to Europe, which started two weeks ago, were validated with the trip ending in an unceasing flood of clashing evaluations.

Media critical of the US president berated D. Trump for his tone, overall behaviour in meetings with NATO heads of state and was outraged by his statements following bilateral discussions with Vladimir Putin. The US head of state claims to have gotten on well with the latter and supposedly overturned the ruined American – Russian relations of the Barack Obama administration within four hours.

What did the Russian president actually agree with D. Trump? Does the head of the Kremlin have compromising information on him? Did the current owner of the White House trample Western values, betray the Baltic States, Ukraine and even his own country’s diplomats?

Such doubts continue to resonate in Western media and D. Trump, who began to angrily retort and even distanced himself from his own words after returning from the trip, assured that nothing bad occurred – fake news are supposedly lying.

Nevertheless, the controversial statements by D. Trump have led to loud discussions on the future of relations between the USA and its European allies for a reason. The shocking hints and rumours about D. Trump and his entourage’s connections to Russia add another unwashable stain on the overall negative evaluation of the US president’s meeting: he apparently performed especially poorly.

Evaluation of Trump’s performance: weak

At least former Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs, ambassador to the USA and the EU’s ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Ušackas was certain of this. He repeated his earlier thought that in at least the bilateral meeting between V. Putin and D. Trump, the latter, in tennis terms, lost the set overwhelmingly 0 – 6. Why such an evaluation?

“We must understand that the USA and NATO are our most important security partners. It is unfortunate that in Helsinki instead of a courageous and decisive Trump, we saw an individual, who pandered to Putin, who did not raise important questions – the Crimean annexation, war in Ukraine, human rights and democratic norms abuses in Russia. Quite the contrary, he expressed doubts over US intelligence facts, which show Russian meddling, hence such a result,” V. Ušackas emphasised.

That said, he admitted that the worst predicted scenario, dubbed the “Second Yalta” did not occur. This refers to the end of World War II agreement between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union in Yalta, which decided the fate of Eastern Europe.

“No doubt, we do not know what was spoken in that two hour bilateral meeting. But I know how such meetings are prepared: one is the classified discussions, another is what is said in public. And here he appeared very weak, not as the leader of the free Western world, but as a panderer to Putin.

Perhaps he is planning for the future, perhaps we will see results because we cannot say that the US administration has become a nightmare, after all there are defence plans, increased readiness, extra troop deployment in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, we see many gaps. He is a divisive, not uniting leader,” V. Ušackas criticised D. Trump, emphasising that such a performance by the US president is the first in 70 years, during which one could normally expect American leaders to take on the role of uniting the West.

Look at actions, not words

Another commentator on Delfi TV – Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat group MP and National Security and Defence Committee member Laurynas Kasčiūnas urged to not solely criticise D. Trump. L. Kasčiūnas believes that apparently it is necessary to look at not only the US president’s rhetoric, but also his real actions, which apparently are not reminiscent of concessions to Russia.

“Indeed, what you say is important, but what is more important is what you do. A day after Helsinki – a message about 200 million US dollars for Ukrainian defence needs. I would think that we have not fully grasped, what Trump’s strategy is. And it is as follows: peace through power.

Perhaps it was lacking in rhetoric, but it is implemented in practice: Trump will double the European deterrent initiative budget, most of the funding will be directed at fixing the especially important to Lithuania air defence gaps, furthermore, the USA will modernise air force bases in Estonia, Hungary and Slovakia.

Yes, there are weaknesses in the rhetoric, but in practice, the USA is establishing military domination and is increasing the US’ military participation in Europe.

When we turn to his works for our interests, then the numbers increase further,” L. Kasčiūnas disputed V. Ušackas’ tennis result.

“Of course it is much better when the rhetoric matches the actions. But once again, I favour practical actions and not rhetoric. I have heard much appealing rhetoric from Obama, but from him I also heard words to Medvedev (In 2012, D. Medvedev, who was ending his term as Russian president answered to B. Obama’s promise that that USA will be more flexible in resolving bilateral disagreements, among them the anti-rocket defence system in Europe, if he were re-elected in November).

At that time, we did not make much noise, but now certain minor mistakes are made out to be the end of the world. D. Trump’s evaluations are greatly ideologised and liberal groups try to push all the blame to Trump through an ideological prism,” L. Kasčiūnas said.

“I am certainly no liberal, nor can you call John McCain a liberal. Laurynas, you are talking nonsense if you compare Trump to Reagan; thank God we have a professional team in the US administration. But we cannot ignore Trump’s words because it is the president, who makes the final decisions,” V. Ušackas retorted.

Decisions do not match views

The Delfi commentators’ opinions on D. Trump clashed several other times. V. Ušackas, criticising the MP’s statements, emphasised that D. Trump’s decisions do not match his own value and political views, it is solely the achievements of professionals in the Pentagon, Congress, State Department and other institutions, who advise the president.

“They forced Trump to back away from cancelling sanctions against Russia, to be more favourable toward Europe,” Ušackas stated, albeit being countered by L. Kasčiūnas asking, who was it that appointed advisors such as Herbert McMaster, John Bolton and James Mattis, if not D. Trump.

“But all his public decisions, without consulting advisors, undercut US – European cooperation. D. Trump is creating drama. I would like to quote Ronald Kessler here, who writes that D. Trump wishes to show friendliness, reduce tensions and communicate, but at the same time, makes other feel uncomfortable.

It is part of his strategy that partners would obey his will. He acts like during negotiations, based on the carrot and stick principle. But speaking of the meeting in Helsinki, it was all carrot,” V. Ušackas continued.

That D. Trump is sending his audience the message it desires (there will be no unnecessary confrontation with Russia, American funds for NATO will be saved and such), but in reality politics is going its own way, more and more experts note, emphasising that stability is ensured by D. Trump’s team, which often disagrees with his radical rhetoric.

Nevertheless, according to L. Kasčiūnas, especially in Europe there is often a desire to see negatives related to D. Trump, which bring out a latent anti-Americanism in the Old Continent and form a certain agenda and this is nothing new.

“First there was George W. Bush, the old-new Europe, there was unilateral policy, directed toward certain Western European states and the door to NATO was opened for us. I am not saying that the strain on transatlantic relations is good, but when geopolitical combinations appear and the USA is our partner, perhaps we have opportunities to seek benefit. Certain rhetoric from D. Trump could catalyse circumstances, but let us not push all the blame on him when the processes are already entrenched,” L. Kasčiūnas stated.

In his opinion, it was specifically D. Trump, who sparked NATO reforms, promises from European Alliance members to raise financing.

Cannot be trusted?

The two conservatives’ dispute in the Delfi TV studio, what D. Trump’s rhetoric is actually worth and what is its influence grew into less than diplomatic comparisons. Former ambassador V. Ušackas did not spare D. Trump’s performance in Helsinki of creative descriptions.

“His actions make me greatly concerned, his communication undercuts the trust of US and European leaders, his behaviour is based on showmanship with Bollywood diplomacy elements.

Furthermore, through his performances he is creating certain moods in America. If a year ago 65% of Americans supported NATO, now this number has dropped to 40%. D. Trump is even changing Republican opinion with his messages – 80% believe Helsinki was successful.

These facts send a signal that Europe and Lithuania cannot take it as a self-evident matter that the US’ commitments to collective defence agreements will be implemented during D. Trump’s presidency,” V. Ušackas stated.

The former ambassador repeated this thesis regarding the potential threat to US commitments to defend its allies several times, once more adding that D. Trump performed weakly.

When asked by Delfi, how he, running for president himself, would speak with the US leader, having described the latter’s statements as weak and publically doubting the Trump administration’s promises to accomplish commitments based on NATO Article 5, V. Ušackas assured that it is most important to talk and not necessarily with D. Trump.

According to Ušackas, what matters most now is to care for one’s own defence, invest not 2%, but perhaps even 4% of GDP in defence and develop contacts with US politicians – Congress, administration, Pentagon and other structures’ influential members, analyst community. The former foreign minister also had suggestions for the Lithuanian public sphere.

“We must be more subtle, display thoughtful diplomacy, realising reality, not being paranoid that this will be a nightmare, the end of the world, how some young diplomats have claimed. We must carefully and calmly analyse the situation,” V. Ušackas stated.

With L. Kasčiūnas reminding that D. Trump’s speeches should be viewed as a call, which “woke up European sleeping in pacifism and the end of history,” V. Ušackas once more stung D. Trump.

“Laurynas, I agree that we must talk about it, but the more he talks about it, likely it will help little, especially in Germany. No US president has expressed mistrust in the intelligence community of his own country, doubted in NATO Article 5.

Thus, we must work with the Republicans and Democrats and those, who turned down Trump appointments, we must work with them, we must invest into our own defence, strengthen alliances in Europe and aid Germany – the most powerful state in Europe. We cannot hold the security guarantees as self-evident,” V. Ušackas repeated.

Meanwhile according to L. Kasčiūnas, such evaluations may be rushed, albeit he agreed that it is crucial to talk to the Americans.

“Yes, we must make use of all possible formats. For example on August 25, we will have the Valdas Adamkus conference, many Americans will visit Lithuania, Žygimantas Pavilionis is trying to draw them in so they would hear out our concerns,” L. Kasčiūnas said, reminding of famous US analyst Robert Kagan’s comparison, comparing the Europeans with the more peaceful Venus and the Americans – the warlike Mars.

“Specifically the latter attitude is more suitable when talking to the Kremlin – by looking at the world through a more militant lens, you understand better how Russia acts, how to talk to it and based on what principles.

D. Trump is continuing this understanding and the Europeans’ problem is simple – their security worldview is different, they live in the Fukuyama dream of the end of history. Supposedly it is better to not clash with Russia and it realises this, thus it is better for the Kremlin to talk to the Europeans than the strict USA,” L. Kasčiūnas stated.

Diplomatic veteran’s comments

“The USA is important to us, but D. Trump’s actions are unpredictable, divisive among Western leaders, not uniting as before, thus the consequences could be long term because a part of the American society is directed against Europe. It is all good to talk about 2%, Nord Stream, but can we trust him,” V. Ušackas asked rhetorically, avoiding directly answering whether he mistrusts D. Trump, but once more doubting in the latter’s decision making logic.

He also advised to careful consider an interview released by the Financial Times last weekend featuring a veteran of US diplomacy, former Secretary of State and advisor for national security Henry Kissinger.

In the interview he stated that the Trump – Putin meeting was needed, furthermore the West apparently was mistaken on its attitude to Russia, naively thinking that the Kremlin will play based on Western rules. Nevertheless, H. Kissinger believes that “it is specifically D. Trump, who could be the historical figure, who marks the end of an era, not realising it himself.” Furthermore, according to the expert, it would be ironical if it were D. Trump, who Europeans dislike, that made them finally consider their own defence seriously.

“I respect H. Kissinger’s opinion, I would speak to him several times every year. But let us not forget that he is from a similar camp as Trump, stating that we must talk to Russia, draw up zones of influence, his statement confirms my doubts and concern that we are facing a new phenomenon of making deals at the expense of other countries,” V. Ušackas warned.

That said, at the same time he admitted that he himself suggests changing Lithuanian relations with Russia – that there is a need to prepare for the end of the Putin era, to support democratic movements and political powers, communicate with Russia. However at the same time he urges to understand that “Lithuania will not change Russia,” even if we will remain neighbours.

“We must invest in the future, we are and will remain neighbours, Kaliningrad is a zone of danger and opportunity,” V. Ušackas stated, receiving a remark from L. Kasčiūnas that Lithuania, unlike the major countries, can risk far more in such interactions with Russia due to incomparable political weights and trades offered by the Kremlin could be far more dangerous than, for example, agreements between Russia and the USA.

About Vaidas Saldziunas 37 Articles
Jau daugelį metų domiuosi karinėmis ir saugumo temomis, Jungtinėje Karalystėje esu studijavęs karo mokslus. Žiniasklaidoje dirbu 8 metus, daugiausiai dėmesio skyriau užsienio naujienoms, o nuo 2015 metų rašau DELFI gynybos ir saugumo temomis.
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