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Last Updated : Sep 04, 2019 08:00 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Digging Deeper podcast | Trump, Russia and the G8 conundrum

The issue of G7 and Russia to one side, Trump’s position on Russia has the potential to make a big difference in the US elections in 2020.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Mahadevan R. | Rakesh Sharma

Last week, when the leaders of the G7 group of nations met at Biarritz, the charming seaside town in southwestern France, the world was ready for US President Donald Trump to be belligerent, contrary, inconsistent, and exasperating. And he was all that. In the middle of many statements, he also made a call for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven, a demand that he had made during the previous summit of the group of seven industrialized nations last year in Charlevoix, Canada. Unrealistic, provocative, contrary, devious – adjectives such as these made the rounds, as leaders of most of the other nations in the group either aligned themselves against Trump like most of the European leaders, or at best stayed mum. Among the other six nations of the group, Canada, Germany, France and Britain categorically disagreed with Trump, while Japan preferred to stay out of it. It was only Italy’s outgoing prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who leaned towards Trump’s side of the argument. Incidentally, Conte had leaned towards Trump’s view at the summit in Canada in 2018, too.

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Trump had voiced similar sentiments at the previous G7 summit too. Some observers said this was par for the course, and traced the history of his coziness with Russia and Putin, harking back to the allegations of his collusion with Russia in the runup to the 2016 Presidential election. Others said this was just Trump being Trump, or he was trying to distract attention from what’s going on at home, or that he was just trying to being the centre of attention again, seeing how isolated he was among the others in the group.

Trump was of the opinion – in fact, insisted – that the presence of Russia in the group would be helpful in dealing with problems relating to countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea. Nobody else seemed to share his enthusiasm, though, insisting that nothing had materially changed regarding Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin, since the expulsion from what was originally the G8, over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Neither Russia in its current avatar, nor Putin, from their point of view, fit into the scheme of things of the G7 being a “community of liberal democracies.” After all, Crimea was the first such annexation in the western world since World War II.

The expulsion of Russia happened in 2014, during the second term of the Barack Obama presidency. And Trump has, whenever the context came up, referred to it, almost gleefully, as an inadequate response by Obama and a result of his impotence in being unable to prevent Russia from doing what it wanted to do.

Russia annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014, after gunmen took over the peninsula. The Crimean peninsula was part of Ukraine, jutting into the Black Sea to the south of Ukraine. It is also connected to Russia by a bridge across a sliver of sea on its eastern side. The Russian annexation of Crimea was preceded by the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which was also, in a way, what led to the Crimea incident. Beginning November 2013, Ukraine saw a series of protests, leading to violent demonstrations and clashes with police. Ukraine had wanted a closer association with the European Union. An association agreement with the EU would have facilitated this, and given Ukraine access to loans in return for liberalizing reforms. However, that would have come in the way of its relationship with Russia, which was the largest trade partner. Because of this, successive presidents, including the then president, Viktor Yanukovych, had delayed signing the agreement while expressing their desire for a closer relationship with the EU. Eventually, this led to popular protests.

In February 2014, after a lull, the protests began again in right earnest. This time, the violent demonstrations took the lives of 130 people, and ended in the overthrow of Yanukovych. While the president fled to Russia, fearing for his life, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a resolution divesting Yanukovych of his duties and setting up an interim government. Yanukovych called the decision illegal and sought help from Russia. Meanwhile, counter protests in favour of the previous president cropped up in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. In response to Yanukovych’s appeal and the unrest against the revolution, Russian President Vladimir Putin started the process, as he put it in a meeting, of “returning Crimea to Russia.”

On February 23, 2014, masked Russian troops took over the Crimean parliament. On March 16, Russia included Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, and installed Sergey Aksyonov as the prime minister. A referendum was conducted in Crimea, which supported the move. Russia pointed to the referendum to term this a move towards self-determination by the people of Crimea, while most others saw the referendum as a sham, an excuse for Russia’s actions. Many nations around the world, particularly the Western world, however, saw it in an entirely different way. They held it to be in violation of a series of agreements and treaties, starting with the Belavezha Accords that established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after the breakup of the USSR. Many of the republics that were part of the erstwhile USSR issued statements against the annexation, with some perceiving it as a threat to their own existence. The European nations, along with the USA, were strong in their condemnation. Canada recalled its ambassador from Russia and cancelled its participation in the G8 summit that was to be chaired by Russia.

US President Barack Obama, ever since reports of Russian military movements were reported, had been warning Russia not to act in a way that would threaten the sovereignty of Ukraine. He also told Putin that he would face political and economic isolation, if he interfered territorially in Ukraine, and that the US would boycott the G8 summit.

After the annexation, within four days, the US imposed the first set of sanctions, followed ten days later, by another set of sanctions that included the freezing of the US assets of Russian officials. The non-Russian members of the G8 got together and passed a resolution to remove Russia from the group for its annexation of Crimea. The statement released by the group of leading industrialized nations said: “International law prohibits the acquisition of part or all of another state's territory through coercion or force. To do so violates the principles upon which the international system is built. We condemn the illegal referendum held in Crimea in violation of Ukraine's constitution. We also strongly condemn Russia's illegal attempt to annex Crimea in contravention of international law and specific international obligations.” However, Russia, in response, dismissed the G8 as an informal forum for dialogue, unlike the G20 where all economic and financial questions are decided.

Even during the Crimea crisis, when Obama had been talking to Putin asking him to desist, current US President Trump, had been baiting Obama and deriding what he called the US’ ineffectiveness in dealing with Russia. In a tweet, Trump had said: “The US has appealed ro (sic) Russia not to intervene in Ukraine – Russia tells US they will not become involved, and then laughs loudly!” In his continual poking at Obama, Trump had also said last year, as Buzzfeed quoted in a tweet: “This was an Obama disaster. And if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea.”

But, ever since he became president, Trump has been supporting the cause of Russia and Putin at various fora, perhaps most famously when he seemed to trust Putin’s word against that of US military agencies regarding Russian meddling in the US presidential elections that Trump won. Even during the Crimean crisis, Trump had not directly mentioned Putin as an aggressor.

It was at the time of the G7 summit in Canada last year that Trump had first made his forceful argument to get Russia back into the fold. At that time, Putin, when he was asked what would make Russia return Crimea to Ukraine, Putin had replied that “there are no such conditions, and there never can be.” Trump’s continued support for Russia in the face of this position has served to isolate him among the US allies, and this seemed to be case at the recently concluded G7 summit too. At home, too, criticism from the Democracts, the media and other agencies – and even Republican senator John McCain – does not seem to have deterred Trump, nor the Mueller investigation into alleged collusion with Russia during the American presidential elections. If anything, all the criticism and setbacks seem to have made Trump more entrenched in his position.

Trump repeated his wish for Russia’s inclusion this time around too, at the G7 summit in France. On both occasions, he was overwhelmingly rebuffed by the other members. Next year, though, the G7 summit is set to be chaired by the US, which means Trump will be able to invite the guest of his choosing. This time, French President Emmanuel Macron had invited Iran in a surprise move, in an apparent effort to find a solution to the US-Iran issue. Trump, when he was asked, said he would certainly invite Putin, but was unsure whether he would attend since “he’s a proud person”. He went on to, again, bring up Obama, repeating that Obama threw out Russia because Putin outsmarted him over Crimea – again, poking at the previous US president while seeming to be almost gleeful about Putin’s putting one over on the US.

Nobody anywhere in international politics expects Trump to change or to look at an international issue without reference to himself. Now that the G7 summit is over, this issue is certain to die down – like it did the previous year –  and move on to other Trump-based issues, unless something unexpected comes up forcing a reference. It is likely equally certain that come 2020 and the G7 summit to be chaired by the US, the issue will come up. With Putin’s position clear vis-à-vis Crimea, that Ukraine-Crimea situation is not likely to change in the meantime. The other members of the  G7, especially Germany, UK and France, have also made clear their position on liberal democracy and their firm position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. So status quo is likely to remain when we approach the G7 summit in 2020. And, if Trump, as he has said, will invite Putin – and if Putin agrees to attend, especially as a surprise guest, like it happened this time with France and Iran – then, there should be some kind of crystallization of the situation with regard to the other members. Let’s not forget that the summit will also be held ahead of the US Presidential election. Trump wants to hold the summit at a golf resort he owns in Miami. While Trump says he doesn’t care about money, the summit at his property would, as a news report put it, “divert a torrent of taxpayer cash into Trump’s own coffers.”

The issue of G7 and Russia to one side, Trump’s position on Russia has the potential to make a big difference in the US elections in 2020. There is still a year to go, and a lot could happen. If the US-China trade war doesn’t get resolved soon, if the economic slowdown gathers pace, if Trump keeps supporting Putin, and on top of that US voters – especially, the undecideds and the weaker among Trump’s support base – decide that things aren’t quite going well for them – Trump’s stand on Russia in the G7 instance could very well work out to be the turning point.

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First Published on Sep 4, 2019 08:00 pm
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