Analysis

Donald Trump's relationship with Russia keeps raising eyebrows

History will have to judge whether President Donald Trump is really the master of the 'art of the deal'. But he's certainly a master of distracting attention from one crisis by starting another.

Trump’s appeal for Russian re-entry to a revived G8 generates more suspicion than support

U.S. President Donald Trump makes his way to the Official Welcoming Ceremony at the G7 Leaders Summit in La Malbaie, Que., on Friday, June 8, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

History will have to judge whether President Donald Trump is really the master of the 'art of the deal'. But he's certainly a master of distracting attention from one crisis by starting another.

His last-minute call (literally made as he boarded his helicopter) for Russia to be welcomed back into the Group of Seven is a perfect example of Trump's talent for changing the subject.

Perhaps his only goal was to set the cat among the pigeons who were waiting to lecture him about trade in Charlevoix. If so, he succeeded — with Italy's russophile Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte backing him on Twitter within minutes.

Translated roughly from the Italian, Conte's tweet said: "I agree with President @realDonaldTrump: Russia should be back in the G8. It is in everyone's interest."

Trump's statement caused consternation among the other allies — including the Canadians, who declared that Canada would oppose any such move until Russia rolls back its annexation of Crimea. That almost certainly will not happen as long as Vladimir Putin controls Russia.

For British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump's statement was an even more painful slap.

She had just landed in Canada after telling the British press corps on her plane that one of her goals in Charlevoix was to seek unity from her G7 peers in confronting Russia, which her government has formally accused of being behind a nerve gas attack in March targeting a former Russian spy and his daughter. She also said she wanted to discuss her plan for stronger cyber-defences aimed at countering Russian cyber-mischief.

Her spokesperson was already in the difficult position of explaining why the lack of a bilateral meeting with Donald Trump was not a snub. And now this. So much for the 'special relationship'.

President Donald Trump arrives for the family photo during the G-7 Summit, Friday, June 8, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada. From left, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

"Nothing has changed"

"From what we saw at the time, Putin was very upset at being expelled from the G8 in 2014," said Seva Gunitsky, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto. "He saw membership as a symbol of the kind of recognition he wanted for Russia as a great and respected country.

"So permission to re-enter the G8 is really a very valuable bargaining chip. And yet Trump seems willing to give him this prize with no preconditions.

"Let's not forget Putin was expelled for occupying Crimea and nothing about that situation has changed."

Gunitsky said Trump's trial balloon, "part of a pattern of bizarre choices," will only inflame suspicions that the U.S. president is beholden to Russia in some mysterious way.

Robert Bothwell is a professor of International Relations at the Munk School of Global Affairs, specializing in Cold War history and Canada-Russia relations. He said he believes the notion that the U.S. president is a Russian agent of influence is now being seriously entertained in defence and intelligence circles in Washington.

"I'm trying to think of more than one or two occasions when he was critical of Russia or Putin," he said.

Bothwell said that Canada's disapproving attitude toward Russia is similar to that of U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis or others in the U.S. defence establishment, but is far removed from that of the U.S. president.

Putin the Borgia

Bothwell said there are a few valid reasons to argue for a closer relationship with Russia — a desire to lower tensions, for example, and to respond to Russia's newfound influence in the Middle East.

"But there's also the moral question," he said. "Russians abroad have a bad habit of dying suddenly. Russian dissidents at home have a lot of accidents with staircases and so on.

"In a way it becomes like the West's attitude to Tsarist Russia, that it just was not a decent place. It matters when you look across the table and see a character who could be straight out of the fifteenth century and you have to wonder what he put in your tea."

Liberal MP John MacKay raised another concern: how to discuss issues of security cooperation in the presence of a geopolitical rival.

"I don't know how any member of the G7, including the president of the United States, could be even mildly cognizant of any kind of security analysis and invite Mr. Putin into the G7," he said.

He also appeared to question Trump's motives. "Mr. Putin made a significant intrusion into the U.S. election and it's paid off big-time for him."

Merkel in the middle

If Trump and Italy's Conte represent the more Russia-friendly end of the G7 spectrum, and Canada and the U.K. are the most hostile, Germany's Angela Merkel falls somewhere in the middle.

In La Malbaie yesterday, she said that "the conditions had not yet been met" to re-admit Russia to the G7, but her tone was more measured than that of her Canadian hosts.

The East German-raised chancellor has often warned that it is dangerous and counter-productive to isolate and demonize Russia. She has made an effort to keep channels open with Putin, traveling to Sochi to meet with him just three weeks ago.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Russian President Vladimir Putin upon his arrival for the first day of the G20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)

She has also resisted U.S. pressure to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia, and in April she travelled to Washington to lobby against new U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

Merkel is the West's senior statesperson, a wise political survivor who grew up in a landscape that had been laid waste by the Red Army's conquest of Nazi Germany. That left her with a strong instinct to lower tensions and act as a bridge between Russia and the West.

But "Germany is not in the pro-Russia camp by any means," said Gunitsky.

Merkel's stance partly reflects Germany's energy dependence on Russia, he said, and is tempered by a healthy suspicion.

Affinity with authoritarians

Trump couched his appeal for Russia in a revived G8 in the language of realpolitik — the argument that, in the real world, you have to deal with your rivals and enemies as well as your friends.

But his remarks reminded many American observers that he has been unusually friendly with those enemies — picking fights with U.S. allies while praising North Korea's Kim Jong Un as "very honourable," for example.

Republican Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, condemned Trump's appeal from his home in Arizona, where he is battling terminal cancer.

"The President has inexplicably shown our adversaries the deference and esteem that should be reserved for our closest allies. Those nations that share our values and have sacrificed alongside us for decades are being treated with contempt.

"This is the antithesis of so-called 'principled realism' and a sure path to diminishing America's leadership in the world."

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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