It is clear by now that US President Donald Trump’s remark on Thursday as he was setting out for the Group of 7 (G7) summit in Canada on the readmission of Russia into the grouping was not an off-the-cuff remark.
On Saturday, the American leader revisited the idea, insisting that it would do a world of good for G7 countries and the world – and for the United States, in particular. (The G7 is comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States.)
That Trump launched the trial balloon after a discussion at the G7 gathering is important. Trump suggested certain progress in that direction had been made behind closed doors:
“It has been discussed. We didn’t do votes or anything, but it has been discussed. Some people like the idea of bringing Russia back in. This used to be the G8, not the G7….I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in. I think it would be good for the world. I think it would be good for Russia. I think it would be good for the United States. I think it would be good for all of the countries of the current G7.”
Trump also said: I think the G8 would be better. I think having Russia back in would be a positive thing. We’re looking for peace in the world. We’re not looking to play games….I would rather see Russia in the G8 as opposed to the G7.
The American leader also implied that Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 prompting its expulsion from the G7 and imposition of economic sanctions against Moscow, doesn’t have to be an obstacle. He pinned much of the blame for the Crimea standoff on his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump said:
“Well, you know, you have to ask [US] President [Barack] Obama, because he was the one that let Crimea get away. That was during his administration. And he was the one that let Russia go and spend a lot of money on Crimea, because they’ve spent a lot of money on rebuilding it. I guess they have their submarine port there and such. But Crimea was let go during the Obama administration.
“And, you know, Obama can say all he wants, but he allowed Russia to take Crimea. I may have had a much different attitude. So you’d really have to ask that question to President Obama — you know, why did he do that; why did he do that. But with that being said, it’s been done a long time… I would say that the G8 is a more meaningful group than the G7, absolutely.”
So what was Trump getting at? To be sure, the context is important. Trump used the G7 meeting to pile pressure on his major Western allies, threatening to cut off US’ trade ties with them unless they acceded to his demands on “fair and reciprocal” trade and a no-tariffs, no-subsidies global trade order.
His unilateral call for Russia’s reintegration into the G7 was a reminder that Trump has options. This is one thing. Second, Trump spoke following Austria’s confirmation that it has transmitted a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin for an early summit with him. (Putin has since said that “the ball is in the US’ court.”)
Trump has opened a Pandora’s box with his pro-Russia call. And he couldn’t be unaware that the sanctions issue is key to Russia’s readmission into the G7.
In fact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly retorted: “We have discussed Russia’s participation (in G7). In my view, there is a need for significant progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements [concerning a resolution to the conflict in Ukraine], so for now I don’t see any possibility of Russia’s participation.”
The G7 final communiqué also took a tough line on sanctions, warning to “take further restrictive measures in order to increase costs on Russia.” It also demanded that Moscow should “cease its destabilizing behavior to undermine democratic systems and its support of the Syrian regime.”
On balance, Trump is creating the raison d’etre of a summit meeting with Putin, which in normal times would have caused an uproar in the US. But why shouldn’t Trump alone have no high-level meeting with Russia because of sanctions?
America’s major Western allies, including Germany, France, Italy and Japan – show no such compunctions. By raising the bar to a new high threshold – Russia’s readmission into the G7 – Trump has won greater acceptability for a possible summit with Putin.
Unwittingly, perhaps, he’s also brought to the fore another big question: Are the sanctions against Russia relevant anymore now that it’s effectively “business as usual” between Russia and other Western powers?
On Thursday, the chiefs of the general staff of the US and Russia – General Joseph Dunford and General Valery Gerasimov – met in Helsinki to discuss US-Russian relations, Syria and international security issues.
The paradox here is that the Europeans expect the US to stand up to Russia, but have no qualms about doing business with Russia themselves. And while there is an apparent growing body of EU members that stand for lifting sanctions against Russia, no one wants to bell the cat apart from Trump.
Trump has repeatedly made the point that if Western allies want the US to lead on security matters, they must reciprocate by shoring up his vision of “America First.” At the final G7 press conference before leaving Canada for Singapore for his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump sounded confident that he is getting his way on trade issues.
Trump is thus building his case to be among the most underrated American presidents in modern history. In a momentous week, he has decisively pushed forward his agenda of “fair and reciprocal” trade, prepared the ground to re-engage Russia and is now headed for what appears to be a successful opening with North Korea.
Any one of these achievements, if capped, would make for a brilliant presidential legacy.