Burns: Trump Helsinki comments "embarrassing"

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia William Burns points out that diplomacy is not about winging it, especially when you're meeting Vladimir Putin.

Posted: Jul 17, 2018 4:17 PM
Updated: Jul 17, 2018 4:37 PM

"Magnificent" - that's the word Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used to describe the talks between President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. "They were magnificent," Lavrov told a journalist, "better than super".

Outside Russia, not many foreign diplomats seem to agree.

Instead, European envoys offered assessments that ranged from "frightening" and "devastating" to "an abomination," with some raising the need to create new strategies to deal with the US as a now less-than-reliable ally, perhaps even an adversary.

These foreign diplomats, and some American ones, pointed to many of the same issues that appalled US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and mortified American foreign service officers watching the press conference by Trump and Putin.

Apart from siding with Putin over US intelligence agencies, and rejecting their conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 elections, Trump failed to publicly raise Russia's support for the Syrian regime, involvement in a chemical weapons attack on British soil, its meddling in Ukraine or annexation of Crimea, among other issues.

'I'm exploding here'

"I'm exploding here, like so many people around the world who hold America dear," a senior Ukrainian diplomat told CNN's Jim Sciutto after the press conference was over.

A senior Western diplomat called Trump's comments with Putin "devastating" and "pathetic."

"All of us have a diplomatic culture and don't really know what to say," the diplomat said.

Steven Pifer, a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, noted that Trump "didn't say one word about Ukraine and he had to be briefed on this stuff."

"The only person to say that the United States says the annexation of Crimea wasn't legal and disagrees with Russia was the president of Russia," Pifer said. He observed that Trump appeared in Helsinki after a disastrous trip to NATO and the UK, where he castigated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May and declared the EU "a foe" as he pushes for tariffs that could ignite a trade war with Europe.

"The overall contrast ... coupled with Trump's inability to say Russia had done anything to contribute to the downturn of US-Russia relations, either way it's scary," Pifer said. "Either he forgot there's a problem or he wasn't willing. He would have had no problem listing his grievances against Germany, but against Putin, he's not capable of saying anything."

Veteran US diplomats echoed pronouncements that few had seen an American president deliver the kind of performance Trump gave in Helsinki. "I've never seen anything worse," said one longtime foreign service officer. "I don't know where we go from here."

A US ambassador, who asked that their region not be identified, said that "Putin is very happy tonight, but we are all in shock. "

"When the entire administration - including leadership - feels one way about Russia and the President doesn't listen to any of his advisers and goes off on his own, what is our policy going forward," the envoy said. "These are the questions that everyone is going to be asking."

A German official said the press conference and Trump's deference to Putin was "frightening," and yet another example of why Germans -- for the first time since 1948 -- see the need for a "US strategy," which treats Washington as a potential adversary.

"The thinking now is Europe needs to close ranks now to address US threats," the official said.

In Germany, Trump's push on trade and tariffs, as well as signals of support by the US ambassador for populist, right-wing movements are particularly concerning. In an interview with a German newspaper published Monday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, "We can no longer completely rely on the White House."

On his own Twitter account, Maas said that "if the US sees the EU as foe, that shows how deep the rift in the Atlantic has become."

"This is a pivotal moment in German foreign policy that pains committed transatlantic players, strengthens those harboring resentment against the US and opens a whole new set of opportunities for Russian interference," said Michael Werz, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress. "No one should assume that this will be easy to reverse after 2020. We are seeing a tectonic shift in transatlantic relations."

The senior Western diplomat predicted that one silver lining of the meeting would be that "nothing will come out of this summit" because Trump rarely seems to follow through on his meetings with world leaders.

Even if Putin "wanted to get something from Trump, it never goes anywhere," the diplomat said. "And [Trump] doesn't know anything on substance ... how does he negotiate? "

But in Finland, in the aftermath of the summit, Foreign Minister Timo Soini said that his country was relieved that two things seemed clear: that Putin acknowledged the US and Russia don't see eye to eye on Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and that there was no indication that the US would pull back on NATO's military training exercises in the Baltic.

"When it comes to military training, it was a concern if negative signals would come out," Soini told CNN in a phone call. Before arriving in Helsinki for his meeting with the Russian leader, Trump had floated the possibility that he would consider suspending military exercises if Putin raised the issue.

While Finland is not a member of NATO, it is a partner to the alliance and acutely aware of defense issues as a smaller country that sits on Russia's western flank, that has been occupied, annexed and attacked by its neighbor over the centuries.

'A good story'

The Finnish minister also said that the clear statement of difference over Crimea was a good thing -- though Putin, and not Trump, made that statement. The Russian annexation of Crimea marked the first time since World War II that sovereign European borders have been violated, a matter of deep concern for Europe.

"What happened in Ukraine is wrong it's against international law and illegal, an annexation, but the good thing was that Mr. Putin said that we disagree with the US," Soini said. "The US and Russia disagree when it comes to the Crimea and that is very important that the US is with Europe in this matter, because this kind of illegal annexation cannot be accepted."

Soini added that on Crimea, "there were some concerns prior to this meeting," that Trump might not affirm that the annexation was illegal. The US President has suggested that Crimea belongs to Russia because people there speak Russian. "At least for now it seems there's nothing to worry about," Soini said, "but the problem remains."

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