As a CIA Station Chief, I often found myself dealing with Russian intel officials as well as other government officials from a variety of former Soviet Republics in some of the places I was stationed — Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova — to name just a few. The subjects could be joint operations, counterterrorism assistance, etc.
I learned a lot from these dialogues about diplomatic nuance and negotiating strategies. This experience makes me both sympathetic and discerning of any U.S. leader trying to negotiate with difficult, cagey Russians. In such summits as Helsinki, I instinctively place myself in the position of the U.S. leader (whether it be President Trump or someone else) and game-plan how I would deal with the issues… and the inevitable press conferences that follow.
Unfortunately the widely reported Trumpian “gaffes,” elevated to fever pitch by a mainstream media (MSM) intent on apparently provoking war as a way of saying “I told you so!” have totally overshadowed the dialogue at the summit — which, I , amongst others believe could prove a watershed.
Re-watching the Helsinki Press Conference after 3 days of press meltdown, with a clear head, clean sheet of paper, and an understanding of diplomacy, I have a few observations:
Trump's remarks on the summit I found both well stated and encouraging; couched in diplomatic speak, which the president necessarily employed, I found his points compelling.
1. President Trump stated the U.S. sought a dialogue “grounded in realism.” He optimistically voiced that post-summit we would see (A) greater Russian support in the push for North Korean denuclearization, (B) continued open communication on radical Islamic terrorism, and (C) continued pressure on Iran in Syria… stating he had discussed with Putin steps to ensure “that Iran did not capitalize on the U.S. elimination of ISIS in Syria.”
2. The list above are all issues of great concern to the United States. Progress on any one of the items above fully justify the Helsinki meeting. Putin recently met with Israeli President Netanyahu, and I believe that the Trump-Netanyahu team will be able to move Russia away from Iranian support in Syria. Putin understands that the JCPOA is in the past, and that Iranian internal regime support is fading — why would Russia want to be chained to a corpse? U.S.-Russian cooperation on North Korea could also be a watershed — a slight distancing from China and more dialogue with the West would be in Russia’s national interest — despite the rhetoric, Russia is very concerned about China — as they should be.
3. Russia’s increased cooperation on these issues are in Russia’s national interest and also will involve little expense of diplomatic capital — making cooperation more likely. They also will help Russia begin to repair its badly damaged international image. The now personal nature of the Putin-Trump connection will definitely help this all along.
4. Nuclear weapons — of great concern to both nations, particularly given Russia’s possible violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) from the early 1990s. Dialogue on this front is simply good for the entire world (never forgetting the Reagan mantra, “Trust, but verify!”).
5. When an RT Reporter asked about the Nordstream 2 pipeline, Putin physically reacted, shifting his balance and grimacing, clearly indicating he was uncomfortable. Russia is nervous about the potential end to their energy near-monopoly over Europe — a key part of Trumpian policy. The president answered diplomatically, respecting Germany’s choice (consequences, though!) and was clear that regarding such U.S.-Russian competition, his attitude was “may the best man win.” The U.S. had clearly had come out on top in this phase of the bilateral dialogue.
6. When the Reuters journalist, recounting a presidential tweet, tried to bait POTUS into reciting a list of the problems Russia was responsible for in the world, Trump — much as I would have done — demurred on enunciating U.S. grievances or Russian outrages (not the point of diplomacy, you see!) and qualified his “foolishness on both sides” tweet by stating that both sides were “foolish” not to enter dialogue earlier.
I do not believe the president meant that the U.S. was equally guilty of outrages such as Russia’s invasion of Crimea, UK extraterritorial killings, or atrocities in Syria — although U.S. inaction in the Obama years (“Reset”) created the vacuum which provoked Russian reaction (it’s their nature).
The president clearly believes (as do I) that the Russian Collusion probe is a disaster that has poisoned bilateral relations. In my opinion, this canard has also worked to empower Putin (Thanks, MSM!). Trump focused his talk of “foolishness” on this item — perhaps too much. The MSM obsession with “Russian Interference,” much of it unproven (and never proven effective!) empowers Putin on the world stage, making him look omnipotent.
That the “collusion” of the Trump campaign is absolutely discredited doesn’t matter for MSM journalists, who still want to throw rhetorical grenades at Trump, while reprobate and former CIA Director Brennan sends out asinine tweets about “treason” (even though he voted for U.S. Communist Gus Hall!) and talks about withholding intel from the president (Deep State much?).
The most formidable grenade of all was when Associated Press literally asked President Trump to denounce Putin on the world stage for his misdeeds — and had the temerity to ask “Who do you believe?” (the DNI or Putin). That such a question would even be fielded was an abomination — imagine if such a bomb thrower were at the Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev? You can’t — because it never would have happened!
President Trump spent some time defending the integrity of the presidential election, stated that he “had confidence in both parties” and also stated that Putin had been “very strong in his denial” of election meddling. As Scott Adams brilliantly put it, that statement is diplomatic speak for ”I don’t believe him” — when you are in a major power summit, it does not help your case if you publicly call your interlocutor a liar — even if you know he is. It’s the diplomatic equivalent, when you don’t believe someone, of saying, "I believe that you believe it.”
I would have hedged such an outrageous question with just such an answer as the president — wanting to shield Putin (and the summit’s success) from embarrassment — and knowing full well I had already castigated Putin for election interference in my one-on-one (which I consider very likely!).
Trump broached legitimate (but perhaps ill-timed) rhetorical questions on the efficacy of the FBI investigation (“Why didn’t they take the server?”) and we must remember that Rep. Gohmert, during the Strzok hearings that another country besides Russia had placed a back door into Clinton’s famed bathroom server.
That perhaps the president should not have gotten into the weeds with this does not take away from the fact that these are all legitimate questions posed by the president.
Diplomatic subtlety is lost to MSM and their online Fellow Travelers who seek to defame anything the president says, and make the Trump/Putin Summit the "Worst Thing Ever … Until the next worst thing ever."
In a week, this “flap” will be forgotten — something else will draw liberal rage like a shiny object to a crow. The imminent improvement in Russian bilateral relations with dividends paid regarding North Korea, Iran, and Syria looks like it's in the cards.
Meanwhile, regardless of press releases or the state of bilateral relations, the Espionage War goes on.
CIA officers and collectors everywhere try to meet Russians worldwide to obtain the information the USG requires — they keep their eyes on the ball — and not on the one that the President Trump threw the first lady (although it would be a great souvenir!).
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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