With CHARLIE HARPER
US President Joe Biden, who has been in office for five months, is now busy preparing for his first summit meeting with Vladimir Putin next week. Putin has been President of Russia for 18 of the past 22 years and was only nominally out of the office for those missing four years.
Very often during the 45-year Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union during the last century, American officials would confront and negotiate with Soviet counterparts who had been in office far longer, sometimes for decades. Few failed to acknowledge this fact put the Americans at a comparative disadvantage.
Nonetheless, the US eventually prevailed and celebrated the collapse of the USSR after President Ronald Reagan goaded the Soviets into a military spending contest their tottering, inefficient economy couldn’t sustain.
Just about a decade after the resulting fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin took over in Moscow and he has been in charge at the Kremlin ever since.
He has seen American Presidents come and go, from gullible George W. Bush to aloof Barack Obama to the astounding Donald Trump.
You may recall Trump’s first formal summit meeting with Putin. It took place in Helsinki, Finland, still less than three years ago.
America, the NATO alliance and indeed most of the world was still smarting then from the brazen Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine four years earlier. The Russians followed up that aggression by steadily increasing the heat on a long-simmering dispute along part of Ukraine’s extensive eastern border with Russia.
That dispute continues to be stoked by Putin today, in defiance of resolute Western criticism and intermittent imposition of economic sanctions on Russia.
When Trump and Putin met in Helsinki in July 2018, many observers and Trump’s own national security staff expected him to lodge protests with Putin against the Crimean invasion, as well as to remonstrate with the Russian President against alleged interference by Moscow in the 2016 American election.
There is no convincing evidence that either happened.
What did happen was that the following exchange occurred at the joint US-Russia press conference following a two-hour private meeting between Trump and Putin:
Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press: “President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did interfere. My first question for you sir is, who do you believe? My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you want him never to do it again?”
TRUMP: “My people came to me, to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, they came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin here. He just said it’s not Russia.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be (Russia). I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
In the wake of that summit meeting, Trump’s own national security staff confessed to reporters that they couldn’t figure out how to respond to press questions because no notes were retained after the Presidents’ private discourse.
Lemire, the AP reporter who asked the question of Trump, has meantime become practically a cast member for MSNBC’s popular “Morning Joe” programme that remains one of ex-President Trump’s most strident and consistent critics.
At the time of the 2019 summit, few could fathom Trump’s astonishing fealty to Putin. Many observers speculated the wily Russian must possess damaging evidence of Trump’s supposed indiscretions on his numerous trips to Moscow to promote a grandiose hotel development project there by the Trump Organization.
Trump actually responded to reporters on this rumour once. “Well, if Putin does have any evidence, it must have been from a long time ago,” Trump said. Not a particularly convincing denial.
That whole sorry summit meeting farce from three years ago still plays an inordinate role in establishing the context for next week’s presidential summit meeting, at which Joe Biden will wish to demonstrate again that he is not Donald Trump.
Putin will wish to show, like all Russian autocrats do on such a stage with the world watching, that he is not some kind of junior partner to the Americans.
Both sides have accordingly tried to limit expectations that anything dramatic will result from this latest summit meeting.
As if to emphasise the unlikelihood of any real progress, Putin chose to gratuitously offer last week his assessment of the January 6 riots at the US capitol building during which Trump’s supporters marched from a rally at which he spoke to Capitol Hill and invaded the legislative home of the United States.
Responding to a question at an international economic conference in St. Petersburg, Putin criticised American prosecutors for their pursuit of the January 6 rioters.
“These (rioters) are not looters or thieves,” Putin opined. “These people came with political requests. I’m not giving any evaluations of the actual event. I’m talking about what followed after.”
Biden is drawing on earlier summit scenarios.
In a carefully orchestrated sequence leading up to the meeting, Biden will try to demonstrate American and allied strength and unity. As he wrote in the Washington Post, Biden “will advance that agenda at every stop”.
“In the United Kingdom, I will affirm the special relationship between our countries. Then I will participate in the G-7 summit (of the world’s leading economies). In Brussels at the NATO summit, I will affirm the US unwavering commitment to the alliance. I’ll also meet with the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council to ensure that market democracies write the 21st Century rules around trade and technology.”
The list of current American grievances with Russia is actually pretty impressive.
Russian-based hackers have been implicated in economic disruptions in the US ranging from mischievous to downright malevolent, culminating in the recent interruption of petroleum deliveries in much of the US.
Crimea is still illegally occupied by Russia. Americans of both political parties generally acknowledge Putin’s operatives did interfere in the 2016 elections. The Russians continue to make mischief and worse for Western interests in the Middle East.
Biden will push the American human rights agenda along the lines set out by President Jimmy Carter nearly 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War. Putin may respond with criticism of American interference in Russian internal affairs.
And both Presidents – ex-KGB agent Putin and ex-hawkish senator Biden – will find themselves on eerily familiar ground from Cold War days.
Perhaps from that familiar comfort the two leaders can find a path to significant progress. But don’t bet too much on it.
All alone - but are we?
Prior to Trump’s presidency, Republicans and Democrats bipartisanly supported American Presidents in their summit meetings with the Soviets/Russians. We’ll see how that plays out next week.
But one odd thing both parties now may agree about is unidentified aerial phenomena. Still popularly better known as UFOs, these mysterious aerial craft continue to baffle observers and convince skeptics across the political spectrum in America.
From Fox pundit Tucker Carlson and Florida senator Marco Rubio to former President Obama and several ex-CIA directors and military spokesmen, more Americans are wondering about the reported appearance of alien spacecraft in our skies.
The US government has just ordered the declassification and release of a Defence Department study of UFOs that has stimulated renewed popular interest.
The Pentagon study reportedly says that many objects observed by American military pilots and others are not US military craft, but concedes they could belong to another nation such as Russia or China. Both nations have reportedly experimented with vehicles that can move at five times the speed of sound or faster.
But the suddenness with which the observed objects change speeds and the length of time some of them remain in flight goes beyond what conventional physics and fuel technology could explain.
Polls show one-third of Americans think at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Almost 75 percent also believe the US government knows more than it is telling.
Perhaps the new report will help satisfy them when it is released later this month.