The Putin-Trump call: first move towards friendship?
By Alexander Mercouris
January 29, 2017
The single most important fact known for certain about US President Trump’s and Russian President Putin’s first telephone conversation, with took place yesterday Saturday 28th January 2017, is that it lasted for a whole hour.
That is an unusually long time for two busy leaders such Trump and Putin to spend talking to each other. It shows that they not only took the call seriously but that they used it to discuss the full range of US-Russia relations, and – perhaps most important of all – to become acquainted with each other.
The last is important because both Trump and Putin are known to be individuals to whom trust and personal contact matter highly.
The importance of trust to both Trump and Putin was discussed in an interesting article by the British journalist Piers Morgan, who is a personal friend of Trump’s, who however has also obtained some unusual (for a British journalist) insight into Putin’s personality as a result of information given him to him about Putin by former US President Bill Clinton:
“Never break your word to him (Donald Trump -AM). Trump’s a very loyal guy, as I can personally attest. I’d bet very good money that if you keep your word to him, he will keep his to you. Remember, you don’t have to like him to do good business with him. Bill Clinton once told me that when he met with Vladimir Putin, they would eventually throw everyone else out of the room and go hard at each other until they reached points of agreement. Pertinently, Clinton said Putin never reneged on any of those personal agreements. His handshake was his bond. Trump is from that same old school of business dealings. And don’t gloat if you do get what you want tomorrow. Again, Clinton told me that the key aspect to his dealings with Putin was not to claim ‘victory’ or make him lose face back home in Russia. I would strongly recommend you adopt a similar philosophy with President Trump.”
Piers Morgan is absolutely right in saying that Putin places an exceptionally high value on honest dealing and trust. Anyone who has followed Putin’s career closely is aware of the exceptional importance of trust to him. A key reason why Putin’s personal relationship with former US President Obama collapsed so completely was because – as a result of Obama’s record of broken promises – Putin decided he could no longer trust him.
The fact that someone like Piers Morgan who knows Trump well says that for Trump trust and honest dealing are equally important, is a good sign for Trump’s and Putin’s future relationship.
As for the contents of the first ever conversation between Trump and Putin, the Kremlin has provided an unusually detailed summary:
“Vladimir Putin congratulated Donald Trump on taking office and wished him every success in his work.
“During the conversation, both sides expressed their readiness to make active joint efforts to stabilise and develop Russia-US cooperation on a constructive, equitable and mutually beneficial basis.
“Mr Putin and Mr Trump had a detailed discussion of pressing international issues, including the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, strategic stability and non-proliferation, the situation with Iran’s nuclear programme, and the Korean Peninsula issue. The discussion also touched upon the main aspects of the Ukrainian crisis. The sides agreed to build up partner cooperation in these and other areas.
“The two leaders emphasised that joining efforts in fighting the main threat – international terrorism – is a top priority. The presidents spoke out for establishing real coordination of actions between Russia and the USA aimed at defeating ISIS and other terrorists groups in Syria.
“The sides stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two counties’ business communities, which could give an additional impetus to progressive and sustainable development of bilateral relations.
“Mr Putin and Mr Trump agreed to issue instructions to work out the possible date and venue for their meeting.
“Donald Trump asked to convey his wishes of happiness and prosperity to the Russian people, saying that the American people have warm feelings towards Russia and its citizens.
“Vladimir Putin, in turn, emphasised that the feeling is mutual, adding that for over two centuries Russia has supported the United States, was its ally during the two world wars, and now sees the United States as a major partner in fighting international terrorism.
“The two leaders agreed to maintain regular personal contacts.
“The conversation took place in a positive and constructive atmosphere.”
The single most important words in this summary are those in the last few paragraphs.
Trump – most unusually for a US President – went out of his way to wish “happiness and prosperity to the Russian people” and to assure Putin of “the American people have warm feelings towards Russia and its citizens”.
That is exactly the right way to get on the right side of Putin, who has had to endure decades of criticism, abuse and lectures, not just of himself but also of Russia, from US and Western leaders. Such warm words from a US President are not something Putin has been hearing recently, and he was clearly moved by them, as the warm way he reciprocated shows:
“Vladimir Putin, in turn, emphasised that the feeling is mutual, adding that for over two centuries Russia has supported the United States, was its ally during the two world wars, and now sees the United States as a major partner in fighting international terrorism.”
The reference to the “two centuries Russia has supported the United States” refers to Russia’s support to the American colonists during the American War of Independence, and to the US during the civil war.
Note that Putin also referred to Russia being the US’s ally during the two world wars, as opposed to saying that it was the US which had been Russia’s ally.
In other words, in response to Trump’s warm words about Russia and its people, Putin went out of his way to assure Trump that Russia wants to be the US’s friend, and its ally in the war against ISIS and Jihadi terrorism, as it has been its ally in the world wars in the past.
The Kremlin summary ends with words once common in official summaries of diplomatic exchanges but which are rarely used today
“The conversation took place in a positive and constructive atmosphere.”
That this was actually so is shown by the positive comments from US and Russian officials in the hours following the call. As anyone who has worked in a government bureaucracy knows, officials quickly catch the mood of their chiefs, which percolate down the command chain at extraordinary speed. The fact that officials in both the US and Russia were talking positively about the call in the hours immediately following it is the clearest possible sign that the conversation between the two Presidents went well.
The Kremlin’s summary of the call shows the range of subjects discussed: the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iran nuclear deal, arms control, the crisis in the Korean Peninsula, and of course Ukraine.
Again Putin will have been gratified that a US President is finally talking to him in this way, discussing the full range of international questions with the President of Russia in a way that finally acknowledges Russia’s position as a Great Power. After the bullying and condescension of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras, it will have come as both a relief and a pleasure.
The focus of the conversation was however clearly the putative alliance the US and Russia are forming to fight ISIS and Jihadi terrorism together. Putin has been calling for this since his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2015. As recently as September 2016 the Kerry-Lavrov agreement appeared to have agreed this, only for the alliance to be sabotaged by the Pentagon and the hardliners in the Obama administration. Now that the sabotage of these people is in the past, it appears that this alliance is actually finally happening.
On the subject of the sanctions the Kremlin’s summary of the Trump-Putin conversation has nothing to say, but it does contain an extended passage about a joint desire to develop economic and commercial relations which does indirectly touch on the question of the sanctions
“The sides stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two countries’ business communities, which could give an additional impetus to progressive and sustainable development of bilateral relations.”
Since he became US President Donald Trump’s closeness to the US oil industry has become increasingly clear, and Trump has of course picked Rex Tillerson – Exxon’s former CEO – as his choice for Secretary of State.
The US oil industry has an understandable interest in working with Russia – the world’s biggest energy producer – and that is probably where the initial contacts between “the two countries’ business communities” mentioned in the Kremlin summary will start.
The key point – which both Trump and Putin of course know – is that this cannot happen without the sanctions being lifted. The fact that Trump and Putin talked about establishing “mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two countries’ business communities” therefore means that Trump is fully resolved to lift the sanctions as soon as he feels he can, even if for political reasons he cannot for the moment say so.
On the subject of the US-Russian trade relationship, Trump and Putin touched on another important point. This is that – as many commentators on international affairs acknowledge – the almost complete lack of economic contacts between the US and Russia has up to now has been a major cause in the repeated failure of their political relationship.
Both men clearly understand this, and realise that it is the development of strong commercial and trade relations between the US and Russia which is needed in order to underpin their political relationship so as to make it both successful and permanent. The wording of the Kremlin’s summary of their conversation (“the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties….which could give an additional impetus to progressive and sustainable development of bilateral relations”) shows this.
In summary, the conversation between Trump and Putin went well, as well indeed as could be expected. As the Piers Morgan article shows, the two men have a great deal in common even if their personalities are in many ways very different.
The direction of the conversation also shows something else. This is that Donald Trump has an understanding of human psychology, and possesses diplomatic skills, which few up to now have credited him. He seems to have conducted his conversation with Putin with great skill. For the first time since he became Russia’s leader Putin appears to have a US President who appears to have diplomatic skills to match his own.