Saturday, July 08, 2017

Trump Gave Putin Exactly What He Wanted


Photo

President Trump meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Friday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

While American news media offered differing interpretations of the meeting between President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, debating whether Mr. Trump had shown resolve or had fallen into a trap set by Mr. Putin, the Russian press disagreed on only one thing: the proper translation of the word “tremendous,” which Mr. Trump used to describe the meeting. Headlines in state-owned media, state-dominated media, and the lone independent Web-based TV channel offered translations that hewed closer to “grand,” “outstanding,” or “amazing.” Those distinctions aside, all agreed: The meeting was a triumph.
Mr. Putin has for years — 17 years, to be exact, for this is how long he has been in power — been clear about what he wanted from his relationship with the United States president: He wants to be treated as an equal partner on the world stage and not to be questioned about or pressed on the Russian government’s actions inside Russia or in what he considers his sphere of influence. Despite the friendly tenor of Mr. Putin’s relationship with George W. Bush and the offer of a “reset” made by Barack Obama’s administration, Mr. Putin never achieved his objective — until now. His fourth American president has given him exactly what he wanted: respect, camaraderie and freedom from criticism.
The one accomplishment of the meeting — a limited cease-fire in Syria — is exactly what Mr. Putin wanted. Not the cease-fire, that is: He wanted an acknowledgment that the United States and Russia are equal negotiating parties in the Syrian conflict. He spent years cajoling and then blackmailing the Obama administration into accepting Russia’s decisive role in the Middle East. Now, Mr. Trump has handed him much more than that. He has demonstrated that Russia and the United States can negotiate Syrian life and death without involving any Syrians.
But what was really important was what was apparently missing from the meeting: any criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including its occupation of Crimea, and of the crackdown on political dissent inside Russia itself. In his accounting of the meeting, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson mentioned Ukraine only to say that a new United States representative on the matter would be appointed. He then managed to avoid answering the one question from a journalist about Ukraine and sanctions imposed in response to the Russian war there. Nor did the correspondents at the briefing appear concerned with getting answers on Ukraine. They were much more interested in the details of the two presidents’ discussion of Russian meddling in the American election. This is a topic that Mr. Putin clearly enjoys: It testifies to his political power, apparently unbounded by international borders.
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What was entirely absent from the briefing, the reporters’ questions, and, it is probably safe to assume, the two-hour-and-15-minute meeting itself, was any discussion or even acknowledgment of any of the following:
■ Russia has intensified its crackdown on dissidents. Last month, more than 1,700 people were arrested for peaceful protest — the largest number of arrests in a single day in decades.
■ Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who plans to challenge Mr. Putin in the 2018 presidential election, has been attacked physically and is facing a slew of trumped-up charges. The night before the summit, his Moscow headquarters were raided and one of the staff members was beaten by police. The day after, as Mr. Navalny’s supporters campaigned around the country, dozens of them were arrested — more than 30 people in Moscow alone.
■ More than a hundred gay men have been targeted by purges in Chechnya. Three deaths have been confirmed. Several men are still missing, and dozens more are in hiding elsewhere in Russia. In response to earlier international pressure, the government in Moscow has promised to investigate the matter, but nothing is known about the progress of this investigation.
■ A Moscow court has reached a guilty verdict in the case of five men accused of killing opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015. The court failed to interrogate their motives, however; nothing is known about who ordered the hit.
■ The number of political prisoners in Russia is growing. They include people arrested for peaceful protest and even for statements made on social media. They also include Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence on trumped-up charges of terrorism.
■ Most recently, law enforcement targeted a Moscow contemporary theater called Gogol Center. Former managing director Aleksei Malobrodsky is in jail. He is accused of embezzling state funds earmarked for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which the prosecution falsely claims was never staged.
Since at least the 1970s, Russian leaders and Soviet leaders before them had to face questions about political freedoms and human rights whenever they met with their American counterparts. The Trump administration has ended that tradition. In May, Mr. Tillerson, in a rare public statement on policy, said that American economic and strategic interests had to take precedence over human rights advancement. When he traveled to Moscow in April, he declined to meet with human rights activists, breaking with decades of tradition. It is no surprise that Mr. Trump broached none of these issues. No wonder Mr. Putin and his news media view the meeting as a triumph.
Masha Gessen is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
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