Viewpoint by Somar Wijayadasa*
NEW YORK (IDN | INPS) – In a historic bilateral summit, the United States President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. The summit took place notwithstanding myriad objections, conjectures and apprehensions from many U.S. political leaders who oppose rapprochement with Russia over a plethora of issues: Crimea, East Ukraine, Syria, and Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Just two days before the summit, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 12 Russians for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, giving impetus to a steady drumbeat of demands that Trump cancel the meeting. The New York Times reported, "according to an internal government document, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on 213 Russian-related targets".
Following the summit, the U.S. media have been flooded with derision and condemnation of Trump for not berating Putin over the controversial issues. Perhaps, adding fuel to the fire, Trump tweeted before the summit and reiterated at the news briefing: "Our relationship with Russia has never been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity."
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the meeting between the Presidents of the United States and Russia – the world’s most powerful nuclear-armed superpowers – is a momentous occasion that helps avert catastrophic confrontations.
In the absence of a communiqué on the two-hour private meeting between Trump and Putin, only the press briefing that followed provided clues to what had been discussed.
Putin opened the briefing by saying, "…we believe it necessary to work together to interact on the disarmament agenda; on military and technical cooperation; on the agenda of non-placement of weapons in space; re-establish the working group on anti-terrorism; help Syrian refugees go back to their homes; and to help Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to decrease the migratory pressure upon the European states."
Putin praised Trump for taking the initiative to resolve the North Korean issue, and his willingness to adhere to the Minsk agreement on the Ukrainian crisis. On Russia's interference in the U.S. elections, Putin insisted that Russia did not interfere and is not going to interfere in America's domestic affairs.
Trump agreed on Putin's brief on the summit, and said that the two leaders agreed to work together on nuclear proliferation; to help Syria to reach peace and resolve its humanitarian crises. On the denuclearisation of North Korea, Trump said that Putin was committed to work with U.S. to resolve the Korean problem.
"I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics," Trump said, adding: "A productive dialogue is not only good for the United States and good for Russia, but it is good for the world."
200 years of diplomatic relations
From the early 20th century, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, of which Russia was the core, were basically on a collision course as they had two vastly different ideological systems – capitalism and socialism.
The leaders of both countries have met many times at summits as well as other venues. For example: John Kennedy met Nikita Khrushchev (1961), Richard Nixon met Leonid Brezhnev (1972), Gerald Ford met Brezhnev (1974 and 1975), George Bush Sr. met Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), and Bill Clinton met Boris Yeltsin (1997).
During those meetings, the leaders agreed on a range of security, nuclear disarmament and economic issues. A few noteworthy accomplishments are: Russian support for the United States during the American Civil War; commercial joint ventures; American humanitarian assistance during the 1921-1923 famine in Russia; joint efforts during World War II against Nazi Germany; and cultural, sports, scientific, and educational exchanges.
Even more significant are: The two countries reduced nuclear weapons from an estimated 100,000 warheads during the cold war era to about 13,800; joint efforts in the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in 1963, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972; the Apollo-Soyuz project in space where the cold-war rivals met in orbit in 1975; the first joint U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994; and in 1995, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir in outer space forming the largest spacecraft ever in orbit.
Furthermore, Russia agreed to convert 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet nuclear arsenal into low-enriched uranium suitable for use in nuclear power stations; and the U.S. agreed to purchase $12 billion worth of low-enriched uranium over a 20-year period.
Despite these stupendous achievements, the relations between the two nations have always been volatile.
Worst ever relations
The relations decayed steadily after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Putin described as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.
From 1991, Yeltsin embraced free market principles and sought Western guidance to revamp the Russian economy. However, the effort went awry, causing Russia to endure a traumatic decade of economic and social upheaval.
In 1999, Yeltsin resigned, and handed over to Vladimir Putin a run-down military and a literally bankrupt Russia in a deep recession and complete chaos.
In 2000, Putin was elected as President in Russia's first democratic transfer of power. He hastily adopted democratic and capitalist structures, revamped all sectors of the Russian economy and military, improved living conditions, and injected law and order into the society of the largest country on earth while protecting Russia from foreign interference – making Russia a true democratic nation.
The significance of his presidency, and his monumental accomplishments were outlined in my article: The Importance of Putin and Russia's Presidential Election.
A golden opportunity
During the past 18 years, Putin held summits with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton (2000), George W. Bush (2001), Barack Obama (2016), and met them regularly during the UN General Assembly sessions.
There was hope for strong relations, but the matters turned sour due to geo-political events such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. intervention in Libya, NATO's expansion towards Russia, the West inspired colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Crimean crisis, and mass demonstrations against Putin in 2012 that many believe were instigated and funded through U.S.-backed NGOs, many of which were later asked to leave Russia.
During these interventions, western leaders were disappointed that Putin was not amenable to their suggestions. For example, recently in a BBC interview, a U.S. Congressman said, "We like to improve relations with Russia but on our terms, not on Putin's terms." Therein lies the problem.
Putin abhors orders, especially if the West's demands are contrary to the best interests of Russia – precisely why Putin said: "U.S. prefers diktat rather than dialogue."
U.S. leaders have totally ignored Putin's often repeated proposition that "We do not want confrontation: We want to engage in dialogue but a dialogue that acknowledges the equality of both parties' interests."
Frustrated with Putin's inflexible steadfastness, the West began to demonise him with names: "KGB thug", "new Hitler", "new Tsar", "Bogeyman" to name a few – followed by Russophobia – and concluded that Putin is a crafty statesman ready to re-establish the defunct Soviet Union, and invade Eastern European countries. But there is no proof that Russia has ever invaded its neighbours or other countries.
According to Tom Mayer, a U.S. peace activist, “it is the U.S. military interventions that destroyed Iraq, destabilised Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.”
Referring to these failed interventions, Putin said: “Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster."
The Crimean crisis
The U.S. and the European Union have vowed not to lift sanctions against Russia until it hands over Crimea to Ukraine.
During the Helsinki press briefing, Putin invoked Article 1 of the UN Charter, and stated "that Crimea re-joined Russia following a referendum based on the right of nations to self-determination".
No matter what, Crimea will remain with Russia – as it has been for centuries prior to 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine.
The U.S. and the EU imposed a barrage of sanctions on Moscow making Russians believe that the sanctions, enormous pressure, and innuendos are aimed at triggering a regime change.
I have written exhaustively about U.S.-Russia relations and on sanctions against Moscow in articles for IDN-InDepthNews.Net titled The United States and Russia Relations on Life Support and Sanctions Will Not Cause 'Regime Change' in Russia.
Peace or nuclear apocalypse
Despite his shortcomings, Trump deserves credit for his perseverance in taking the prodigious first step to engage in a dialogue instead of confrontation with Russia.
Also, without wielding nuclear weapons to dominate the world, both leaders should spearhead the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – to eliminate all nuclear weapons, and promote peace and prosperity around the world.
The U.S. and Russia have a choice: Diplomatic engagement for peace and prosperity of their people or confrontation for a nuclear apocalypse.
*Somar Wijayadasa, a Moscow educated International lawyer was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. This article first appeared on The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. The author's previous related articles on IDN can be accessed at:
https://archive.indepthnews.net/index.php/opinion/714-sanctions-will-not-cause-regime-change-in-russia [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 July 2018]
Photo: Vladimir Putin (right) and Donald Trump (left) at a news conference after their summit meeting in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Credit: en.kremlin.ru
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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