As much as we like to think we live in a free and open democracy, the fact is that most of our politicians are working somewhat like ducks: while we are often presented with a cool and calm image, much of the action is furiously going on beneath the surface and away from public view. Our supposedly transparent system of governance is conducted away from public eyes; meetings between world leaders are no exception to this reality.
While President Trump’s private conversations with British royalty and Prime Minister Theresa May did little to pique public curiosity, a frosty history and the “collusion” scandal has made his subsequent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin the subject of intense media speculation. Despite all the apparent cloak and dagger secrecy, Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, may have revealed additional insight into what Putin was hoping to achieve at the summit.
Since Presidents Trump and Putin held their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, branches of the media and political classes have been wondering what went on behind closed doors – are the two world leaders engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the power of the U.S.? Does Putin have “dirt” on Trump, blackmailing him into becoming a mere Petrushka – the foolish and tragic puppet of Russian folklore? Or were the discussions no more than an excuse for the two world leaders to assess each others’ foreign policy motives?
Antonov Reveals Discussions on Ukraine
President Trump tweeted that topics for discussion had included, “stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more.” Naturally, the president’s political opponents didn’t see it as prudent to simply take his word for it, though the Democrat attempt to subpoena Trump’s interpreter for the full details was ill-fated.
The Associated Press reported that Ambassador Antonov gave further details to journalists in Moscow, revealing that Putin had made several “concrete proposals,” but denying that any “secret agreements” had been struck between the two leaders. “There were no secret agreements. There were discussions on the Syrian topic, on Ukraine, concrete orders were given to experts to work in this area,” he said.
According to Antonov, the possibility of a Ukrainian referendum had been discussed as a possible solution to the ongoing dispute over whether Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia or has the right to claim its own sovereignty. “This problem has been discussed, concrete proposals have been made on how to resolve this issue,” he said, “The Russian side made several very serious proposals some of which were announced by Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) at the news conference.”
President Trump reportedly asked Putin not to publicize the possibility of a Ukrainian referendum before he had time to consider the matter, but U.S. National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis later said that, “The administration is not considering supporting a referendum in eastern Ukraine.”
Antonov also called into question the Minsk II agreement that sought a ceasefire between separatists and Russophiles in Ukraine. The agreement was brokered in 2015 between Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, and while seeming pivotal at the time, has failed to be enforced or adequately observed according to international relations experts. “We should ask a question: is Minsk alive or not? If all the countries support the Minsk agreements, then they need to be observed,” said Antonov.
The ambassador called the recent Trump/Putin meeting a “key event,” and although he said the two nations should “deal with the results” of the first meeting before attempting another, he responded positively to President Trump’s suggestion of a second meeting. “Russia was always open to such proposals. We are ready for discussions on this subject,” he said.
Who is Anatoly Antonov?
A career politician and diplomat, Antonov is an expert in international relations and the politics of nuclear weapons. He has a reputation as a hardliner for Russian interests against the West and was serving as Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence during the 2014 Russian military incursions into Ukraine – a role that made him the personal target of European Union sanctions.
In an April interview with NBC, he recalled the alliance between Soviet Russia and the Allies during WWII and said that these two forces could come together again to work against evil in the modern world. He recognized that:
“The shape of our relations are very bad. As a bilateral ambassador of course I try to do my best to facilitate, to improve relations between the United States and Russian Federation but frankly its rather difficult because it seems to me that I even failed to stabilize them… As to Russia, we want to have good relations with the United States…”
“There is a great mistrust between the United States and Russia, but at the same time I would like to emphasise that we have great potential areas of co-operation.”
Trump and Putin: Friends or Frenemies?
Hillary Clinton was overtly hostile to Russia and many onlookers expressed a fear of open war in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. After Trump won, his apparently friendly attitude toward Putin alleviated those fears, while Trump opponents erroneously labeled him a Kremlin puppet. As Trump tweeted, the world leaders “got along well,” but when looking at actions, rather than words, a different story is revealed.
It has been noted that both Trump and Putin are critical of NATO, but many fail to recognize that while Putin dislikes NATO’s increased activity around the Russian border, Trump has criticized NATO for not putting enough funding into these same activities. He also sided against Russia on the matters of recent Syrian chemical attacks and the U.K. Skripal poisoning, as well as imposing sanctions. The path to open conflict is certainly slower under Trump, but it looks as though it leads to the same destination. If Trump and Putin can find common ground on a personal basis, perhaps we will be lucky enough to see a diversion from that road to perdition.