The Trump-Putin meeting in Japan is crucial for both leaders—and for the world.
espite determined attempts in Washington to sabotage such a “summit,” as I reported previously, President Trump and Russian President Putin are still scheduled to meet at the G-20 gathering in Japan this week. Iran will be at the top of their agenda. The Trump administration seems determined to wage cold, possibly even hot, war against the Islamic Republic, while for Moscow, as emphasized by the Kremlin’s national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, on June 25, “Iran has been and will be an ally and partner of ours.”
Indeed, the importance of Iran (along with China) to Russia can hardly be overstated. Among other reasons, as the West’s military alliance encroaches ever more along Russia’s western borders, Iran is a large, vital non-NATO neighbor. Still more, Teheran has done nothing to incite Russia’s own millions of Muslim citizens against Moscow. Well before Trump, powerful forces in Washington have long sought to project Iran as America’s primary enemy in the Middle East, but for Moscow it is a necessary “ally and partner.”
In normal political circumstances, Trump and Putin could probably diminish any potential US-Russian conflict over Iran—and the one still brewing in Syria as well. But both leaders come to the summit with related political problems at home. For Trump, they are the unproven but persistent allegations of “Russiagate.” For Putin, they are economic.
As I have also previously explained, while there was fairly traditional “meddling,” there was no “Russian attack” on the 2016 American presidential election. But for many mainstream American commentators, including the editorial page editor of , it is an “obvious truth” and likely to happen again in 2020, adding ominously that Trump is still “cozying up to the chief perpetrator, Russian President Vladimir Putin.” A columnist goes further, insisting that Russia “helped to throw the election” to Trump. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever for these allegations. Also consider the ongoing assault on Attorney General William Barr, whose current investigation into the origins of “Russiagate” threatens to conclude that the scandal originated not with Russia but with US intelligence agencies under President Obama, in particular with the CIA under John Brennan.
We should therefore not be surprised, despite possible positive national security results of the Trump-Putin summit in Japan, if the US president is again widely accused of “treason,” as he so shamefully was following his meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, and as I protested at that time. Even the ’ once-dignified columnist pages thundered, “Trump, Treasonous Traitor” and “Putin’s Lackey,” while senior US senators, Democrat and Republican alike, did much the same.
Putin’s domestic problem, on the other hand, is economic and social. Russia’s annual growth rate is barely 2 percent, real wages are declining, popular protests against officialdom’s historically endemic corruption are on the rise, and Putin’s approval rating, while still high, is declining. A public dispute between two of Putin’s advisers has broken out over what to do. On the one side is Alexei Kudrin, the leading monetarist who has long warned against using billions of dollars in Russia’s “rainy day” funds to spur investment and economic growth. On the other is Sergei Glaziev, a kind of Keynesian, FDR New Dealer who has no less persistently urged investing these funds in new domestic infrastructure that would, he argues, result in rapid economic growth.
During his nearly 20 years as Kremlin leader, Putin has generally sided with the “rainy day” monetarists. But on June 20, during his annual television call-in event, he suddenly, and elliptically, remarked that even Kudrin “has been drifting towards” Glaziev. Not surprisingly, many Russian commentators think this means that Putin himself is now “leaning toward Glaziev.” If so, it is another reason why Putin has no interest in waging cold war with the United States—why he wants instead, indeed even needs, a historic, long-term détente.
It seems unlikely that President Trump or any of the advisers currently around him understand this important struggle—and it is a struggle—unfolding in the Russian policy elite. But if Trump wants a major détente (or “cooperation,” as he has termed it) with Russia, anyone who cares about international security and about the well-being of the Russian people should support him in this pursuit. Especially at this moment, when we are told by the director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research that “the risks of the use of nuclear weapons…are higher now than at any time since World War Two.”
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His new book is War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.
Copyright © 2019 The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen