Trump in damage control after Putin summit. Israel seeking Syria deal with Russia and the US. Chinese dissident Liu Xia freed. By Hamish McDonald.

Donald Trump’s chaotic European tour

US president Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference after their meeting in Helsinki on Monday.
US president Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference after their meeting in Helsinki on Monday.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

The Donald Trump tour finally wound up on Monday, leaving a trail of political mayhem across Europe.

He’d told the Germans they were “captive” of Russia, told European governments to double their defence spending targets or the United States might “go it alone” out of NATO, informed Theresa May via a Murdoch tabloid that her Brexit strategy was wrong, and walked rudely in front of the Queen.

Prepped by a day of golf at his loss-making resort in Scotland – every bit of promotion helps − he proceeded to Helsinki, where Vladimir Putin acted like a host accepting tribute. In the joint press conference later on Monday, a nervous-looking Trump complimented the Russian president as a “strong” leader.

The Friday before, Robert Mueller’s investigation had indicted 12 named officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, for cyber attacks on Trump’s Democrat opponents in the 2016 election. His own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, briefed the president that the Russians were indeed the hackers. Trump said he’d been assured otherwise by Putin. “He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Trump added that Putin had made him “an incredible offer” to have his Russian intelligence officials work with US intelligence to sort out the story. “If there are any specific materials, if they are presented, we are ready to review them together,” Putin added. In return, Putin would expect help in going after Bill Browder, the British colleague of accountant Sergei Magnitsky, murdered in jail for uncovering Kremlin corruption. Browder had successfully agitated for sanctions over the case, resulting in the Magnitsky Act, cutting access by Kremlin insiders to their offshore wealth.

Russia had also offered to help Scotland Yard investigate the Novichok attack on the Skripals, which had just led to the death of British woman Dawn Sturgess who’d accidentally picked up a discarded phial of the nerve agent. The British police were reported to be close to identifying the GRU agents who carried out the attack.

The performance left Washington and the rest of the Western world aghast. Words such as “traitor” flew around. Speculation arose again that Putin had enough kompromat on Trump to make him a Russian “asset”; The Guardian’s Richard Wolffe called him “Agent Orange”. Malcolm Turnbull came to Trump’s defence, saying he was a “patriot”, though disagreeing with him about Russia.

Trump then tried to wind back. He’d meant to say: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.” But then, another unrepentant twist: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” As the week went on, Trump tried further spins.

No one in the Republican Party seemed willing to pursue the impeachment suggested by former CIA director John Brennan anyway. They’re focused on getting Brett Kavanaugh – Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy – safely installed before the November congressional elections. As well as ticking all the right conservative boxes on abortion, gay rights and gun control, Kavanaugh has long been arguing that sitting presidents shouldn’t be distracted by criminal actions, even though he took part in the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky.

After all this fire and fury, we still know little or nothing about what Trump and Putin actually talked about in their two-hour meeting, held without advisers or note-takers. As veteran US spook-watcher James Risen noted in The Intercept, the CIA used to have a golden rule in its secret talks with the KGB: never send anyone in alone, to reduce the risk of letting slip secrets or being turned. Nobody can tell Trump.

Netanyahu’s deal

One watcher hoping for an advantageous deal from the summit was Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who’d been to Moscow the week before to push for a grand bargain over Syria. He telephoned Trump last weekend.

According to reports in Israel and the US, Netanyahu was seeking Russian agreement to push the Iranian militias in Syria well back from the Golan Heights border, and preferably out of Syria altogether. With the Assad regime back in control, Iranian supply lines to its Shiite allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, could be severed as well. The quid pro quo would be for Trump to drop the sanctions on Russia over the Crimea annexation and eastern Ukraine invasion, and maybe the Magnitsky Act as well. It’s a big ask, but Tehran’s hardliners were worried enough to send former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati to Moscow to argue against Netanyahu’s proposal, which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are also supporting.

It must be tempting for Trump and his anti-Iran advisers, such as John Bolton. Western Europeans are trying to uphold the Iran nuclear deal the US exited, as are big Asian consumers of Iranian oil such as India, China and Japan. But Russia would be highly conflicted.

Netanyahu’s diplomacy also has its contradictions. He’s been cultivating Eastern Europe’s strongmen to weaken European Union resolve on the Palestinian conflict. In Poland last month he gave partial support to its government’s law against blaming Poles for participation in the Holocaust. This week he hosted Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who’s taken an increasingly anti-Semitic tone. It’s contentious in Israel, and the East Europeans are unlikely to favour letting Moscow off the hook for territorial grabs.

What it yields is still hazy. “We both spoke with Bibi and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel,” Trump said at the joint news conference on Monday. “Russia and the United States will work jointly … Creating safety for Israel is something both Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Mother of all talks

After spending $US1 trillion, and suffering 2350 soldiers killed and 20,000 wounded over nearly 17 years, the US has decided the war in Afghanistan won’t be decided on the battlefield and is seeking direct talks with the Taliban insurgents.

Trump’s addition of a few thousand extra troops last year and authorisation of more air attacks, including use of the massive “mother of all bombs”, or MOAB, has failed to stop either the assertion of Taliban control over the countryside or the tempo of suicide bombings in Kabul.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and diplomat Alice Wells have been doing the rounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent weeks to put the word out about a meeting, and reassuring Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government that US–Taliban talks would lead to wider peace.

Liu freed

Thanks to pressure from Angela Merkel ahead of an EU summit with Chinese leaders, Liu Xia, widow of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy writer Liu Xiaobo, flew to Germany on July 10 after eight years of house arrest in Beijing.

It was close to the July 13 anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death from the neglected liver cancer that occurred after his arrest in 2008 for circulating a petition against Communist single-party rule, called the Charter ’08.

Last Friday, wellwishers attended a memorial service for Liu in Berlin’s Gethsemane Church, which had been a gathering place for dissidents in the former East Germany. Herta Müller, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, and former German president Joachim Gauck were there, and there were musical performances from dissident writer Liao Yiwu on flute accompanied by violinist Fabian Lukas Voigtschild, and from singer Isabel Schrodka leading a choir.

But Liu Xia was not there. With her younger brother still prevented from leaving China – making him a hostage – it was thought imprudent for her to appear. Reports said that in China itself, friends of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia were taken on “forced vacations” ahead of the death anniversary to prevent any memorial gatherings.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 21, 2018 as "Arch conjecture in Helsinki ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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