Smackdown in Hamburg


Just before departing for Hamburg for his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump tweeted a trumped-up video showing a fake wrestling match featuring the president pummeling a figure whose face was the logo of CNN.  

Much of the mainstream media properly denounced the video as ill-advised and inappropriate, coming so soon after violence directed against reporters. But the wrestling match could serve as an apt metaphor for the heralded Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg — tremendous advance hype but no major breakthroughs in U.S.-Russian relations.    

Pundits’ evaluations of the Putin-Trump summit varied widely. David Ignatius, the veteran Washington Post commentator and reporter, may have been most on target in a piece headlined, “Trump may claim he won the U.S.-Russia meeting, but Putin probably benefits more.”  

In contrast, Molly K. McKew’s piece for Politico blared, “Trump handed Putin a stunning victory,” adding:  “From his speech in Poland to his two-hour summit in Hamburg, the president seemed determined to promote Russia’s dark and illiberal view of the world.”

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And in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan praised the Warsaw address as the president’s best speech to date. She compared its invocation of democracy, in contrast to totalitarian movements like the Nazis and Communists, to the words of Ronald Reagan — not surprisingly, since Noonan was a Reagan speechwriter.

In his solidly reasoned piece, Ignatius faintly praised Trump this way:  

“The self-proclaimed ‘deal maker’ finally got the beginning of what could be an important diplomatic agreement in Friday’s Russian-American summit in Hamburg.  For a rookie, President Trump appears to have avoided big mishaps that sometimes plague such great-power talks,”

Ignatius lauded the proposed cease-fire in Syria, saying it “could save lives in that tragic conflict and lead to more ‘safe zones.’” After a few days, the cease-fire seemed to be holding.  The United States, Russia and Jordan were formally the partners in the deal, but it should be noted that Israel also would benefit from a quiet border with Syria. 

 If calm can be restored to even a part of Syria, the flood of refugees might be brought under control—and most of all, the bloodshed in the six-year war that has already cost over 400,000 lives and displaced 12 million Syrians from their homes might be ended. The development would have major positive consequences.

Besides the Syrian breakthrough, though, the fallout from other aspects of the Trump-Putin meeting is far less clear.   Only six people were in the room where it happened: Trump and Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and two translators.  Tillerson and Trump insisted that Trump raised the issue of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election forcefully at the very beginning of the talks, and that Putin “vehemently” denied the charges.  

 Lavrov and Putin later insisted that Trump has “accepted” their denials, which seems ludicrous. The Russians will no doubt continue to deny increasing evidence that they indeed meddled in the election, and the results of ongoing U.S. investigations may well come to a definitive and far different conclusion.

So on balance, the much-hyped “Smackdown in Hamburg” between the alpha-male leaders of Russia and the United States produced no dramatic breakthroughs, but it did achieve agreement on an effort to end the bloodshed in the six-year tragedy of the Syrian civil war.  If successful, that is an accomplishment that both men can count as a victory.

But avoiding major mishaps is a pretty low bar for judging success. As far as Russian influence in Trump’s successful election goes, the steady drip-drip-drip of revelations about secret meetings is hardly reassuring. 

While probes by Congress and by special counsel Robert Mueller continue, everyone would be wise to remember the oft-repeated caution from Reagan when it comes to dealing with Moscow: Trust, but verify. Taking Putin at his word is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.