Putin and Trump in Danang: No Reset, Only Ctrl+Alt+Del

13.11.2017

The second personal meeting between Presidents Putin and Trump on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam's Danang was a reflection of all the "wrongness" that can only accompany Russian-American relations today. There was no meeting in the form in which it was expected, although it is obvious that both sides prepared for it long and carefully.

Even at the preparatory stage, Trump's team included those persons who dissuaded his president from meeting with his Russian counterpart, citing possible unpleasant consequences for the US president because of the "Russian trace" investigations in the US presidential election of 2016. The fact that a few hours before the proposed meeting the American side "did not find" a place for negotiations with the Russian leader in the schedule of its president, gave rise to a lot of speculations, including the version that it was "a deliberate action of Americans to humiliate the Russian leadership."

In fact, this was yet another indication of the "toxicity" of the Russian theme, both for Trump himself and for members of his team. The fear of any contacts with Russian representatives covered all layers of the US establishment. This forces the American officials to act cautiously to the point of absurdity. Especially counterproductive for bilateral relations is the fact that even the US president himself is under close surveillance: any of his words, actions, non-verbal signals are viewed through the prism of his calamitous relations with Russia, especially with Putin. It seems to be nothing new. In the United States everyone has been talking about it for over a year. What is happening could be called comical, if it did not have so many serious political consequences. But such is a reality, which is still difficult to understand in Russia and accept as a "rational" element of decision-making in today's America.

Probably, the American side really believed that the results of potential negotiations would not be convincing enough for the American public in general, and it was not worth wasting Trump’s political capital even more, if he agreed to a full-scale meeting.

Moreover, the text of the final statement on Syria, which was finally approved by both presidents, shows that the Russian diplomats have done a lot of work to persuade their American colleagues to agree with some positions that are important for Russia, but which are controversial for the intra-American discourse: de-escalation zones, the presence of Assad, appeals to the opposition to promote political settlement, and so on. The Americans, perhaps, rightly saw in the prepared meeting Moscow's attempt to present these agreements as their own victory and did not want to give it this opportunity once again.

Thus, in a meaningful sense the importance of a personal meeting was not great: the parties prepared a relevant statement on Syria before the two presidents shook hands, and, being at the negotiating table, they would hardly have agreed to something more. It was an important PR aspect, which one side was looking for, and the other one tried to avoid, fearing the consequences.

Finally, the personal contact between Putin and Trump was perceived by the Russian side as a relative success, even if there was a bad aftertaste - in the sense that it was done differently than planned. For Trump, this contact was the starting point for new accusations. Critics of the US president are not very interested in the content of the Russian-American statement on Syria or Trump's attempts to establish a dialogue with Russia and China on the North Korean issue. It is important for them whether Trump spoke with Putin about "Russian intervention"; why did he believe in the Russian president's answer that "there was no such interference" more than in the "concrete testimonies" of all American intelligence services that "there was an interference"; and why Trump was so “polite” with America's "No.1 ill-wisher." These questions are rather rhetorical. Trump's comments to journalists and his "answers" to these questions on Twitter are not able to change the established and carefully cultivated views: at best, Trump is incompetent and Putin easily overplays him, at worst – Trump is "in collusion" with Putin, whatever that means.

Russia is demonized by the West not for what it does, but because of what it is. This country is one of the main obstacles to the domination of America in areas that Washington regards as zones of its vital interests and which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cover almost the entire globe. This explains so vicious anti-Russian propaganda under the banner of opposition to Russian propaganda.

That is why the coverage of Putin's and Trump's contacts in Vietnam is so different in Russia and in America, and that is why it is hardly worth hoping that a new "reset" will follow this contact. The notorious "reset" under current conditions simply cannot take place. However, the "system hang" - both at the level of bilateral Russian-American relations, and inside the United States between Trump and his opponents - obviously requires the periodic press of the "Ctrl + Alt + Del" key combination,  hoping to get the system out of this state. The contact between Putin and Trump in Danang can be considered in this sense.

A three-part approach, where (1) the parties seek to enter into some constructive interaction on acute security issues, with (2) a sincere demonstration of goodwill in the relationship between the two leaders, and (3) maintaining a low profile of conflict when introducing point responses to unfriendly actions, could be the most adequate line of conduct in the flow of political absurdity. Hopes that this approach is able to bring the system out of the hang, probably, would be the Russian version of "Ctrl+Alt+Del" combination.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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