Yesterday, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met face-to-face for the first time in a highly anticipated encounter. Although scheduled to meet with several world leaders during the day, Trump had singled out looking forward to meeting Putin in a tweet that morning:
The world watched their interaction with more than a little interest. Rumours of secret links to Russia have persistently followed Trump since shortly before he won the presidential election last year. However, recently Trump has been highly critical about Russia, and his missile-strike against Russia’s allies Syria left some worried that war between the two superpowers was imminent.
So what is the current state of the Russian-American relationship? What is the evidence that Trump has ties to Russia? How should we react to their meeting yesterday? Here’s what you need to know.
Trump and Putin – an unlikely bromance
Trump starting giving the impression he had an unusual fondness for Russia in early campaign appearances, when he kept repeating “wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia”.
This desire for good diplomatic relations turned into an unlikely bromance when Trump and Putin exchanged compliments. Putin called Trump a “bright and talented person”. Trump reciprocated this flattery, stating that it was a “great honour to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond”.
People became concerned when earlier this year he went further than simply expressing his respect for Putin. In an interview with Fox News, the US president seemed to defend Putin’s human rights record. When questioned about Putin’s human rights violations, he simply retorted “What do you think, our country’s so innocent?”. Even his own Republican party appeared shocked by this comparison, calling his comments “deeply troubling”.
Russian cyber-attacks interfere in US Election
Weeks before the November 2016 US Presidential election, evidence surfaced that Russia were not satisfied with merely hoping Trump would win and were actively trying to influence the election by hacking voter registration systems and leaking over 20,000 emails. The US Government officially accused Russia of involvement in these cyber-attacks shortly after. However, Donald Trump dismissed the CIA’s analysis as “ridiculous”, claiming Democrat’s were just finding excuses for their defeat.
Earlier this year, Trump found himself the centre of controversy once again when he fired FBI director James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Trump’s team’s possible collusion with Russia. Whilst the White House claimed this was due to Comey mishandling Clinton’s email investigation, Trump himself admitted a significant reason was because of “this Russia thing”. Matters were made worse when it was later revealed that Trump had asked Comey to drop the FBI investigation into his former national security advisor.
The investigation into Russian collusion is on-going and there are many who remain hopeful that the US president will be impeached for his actions.
Trump’s recent criticisms of Russia
Relations have deteriorated between the two countries since then. Distancing himself from Russia amidst the allegations, Trump has criticised Russia on a few occasions in recent months.
In April following the Syria chemical attack, Trump blamed Russia their alliance with Assad, despite the Kremlin claiming that Syrian rebels had been responsible for the horrifying attack. After Trump launched a missile attack on Syria in response, some even feared war between the two nations was imminent.
Earlier this week, Trump spoke out against Russia once again, calling for them to end their international “destablising activities”. He called for them to stop supporting “hostile regimes” such as Syria and to join other nations “in defense of civilisation”.
This led to some unease on how the face-to-face encounter between the two superpowers would proceed. Trump lacks diplomacy and can be volatile when he feels insulted. However, former Russian spies predicted Putin would flatter Trump, to gain the upper hand in the exchange.
“Successful first date”
Putin wasted no time deploying the flattery tactic, pointing at the reporters gathered and asking the US president whether “These are the ones who insulted you?”; Trump immediately confirmed this, causing an outcry from journalists.
The tactic worked; from that point onwards, the two men seemed to relax and enjoy each other’s company. The meeting was scheduled to last 40 minutes, but despite attempted interventions to shorten the meeting to keep the President on schedule, it lasted over 2 hours. Former Secretary of State Tillerson claimed that ‘neither one of them wanted to stop’, whilst The Guardian reported it seeming a “successful first date” between the controversial leaders.
Once it finally ended, there was disagreement between the countries about what was discussed. Whilst both countries agreed that Trump began the session by “raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election,”, their accounts of what was said about it differed. Russia claimed that Trump accepted Putin’s assurances that they were not involved in the election interference, but the US were quick to deny this.
Aftermath: People react to historic meeting
Twitter users immediately found the funny side of the bromance, with tweets such as the one below suggesting Trump’s connection with Putin seemed a little more than professional:
However, those analysing the likely political implications seemed worried that Putin had gained a strong advantage over Trump as a result of their meeting. Former White House communications director , whilst John Crace in the Guardian also suggested that was concerned that Trump had fallen into Putin’s ‘trap’Putin had seemed dominant.
The Washington Post suggested that the Russian-American relationship is not about the two countries themselves anymore, but instead about the relationship between the leaders; given Trump’s unpredictable nature, this itself is cause for concern.
Is this a huge relief or deeply concerning?
It is clear that Trump and Putin’s on-again, off-again bromance has turned friendly once again. What isn’t so straightforward is whether we should celebrate this renewed friendship or be deeply concerned.
It is good news that the two countries seem no longer at risk of the escalating conflict that was brewing between them earlier this year. However, worries that Putin may be manipulating the egotistical Trump through this ‘friendship’ into doing his bidding will leave many anxious about what this new alliance could mean.