This weekend’s G-20 meeting promises to be a lot more interesting than many. But, it is the positioning that many leaders are doing in advance of that meeting that is important right now.
And, of course, the most pivotal person at this G-20 will be Donald Trump. Trump will be walking into a room mostly united against him on various fronts. From China’s Xi Xinping over this weekend’s incident in the South China Sea and Trump’s insinuation of moving unilaterally on the question of North Korea U.S/Chinese relations are waning right now.
When you look around the G-20 room you see a lot of that in relation to Trump. Germany’s Angela Merkel is furious with him over NATO funding and the Paris Accord. Canada’s not happy over his consistent threats of increased tariffs on softwoods.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is, at best, confused by the U.S.’s strategies in Syria. I use the plural here to highlight just how conflicted the U.S.’s messaging over Syria has become.
Speaking of Putin, he’s receiving Xinping at the Kremlin to sign a bunch of trade deals and discuss their strategy on how to handle Putin and Trump’s first meeting over the weekend.
Eastern Europe in Focus
Trump himself will set the tone on Friday when he visits Warsaw to sit down with the leaders of the twelve eastern European countries attending Poland’s Three Seas Summit. There he will have an opportunity to further complicate or clarify his relationships with, at a minimum, Putin and Merkel.
Eastern Europe is shaping up to be an important piece of the geopolitical puzzle. Financial and political instability are following each other in Western Europe as it labors under the weight of imbalances caused by the euro’s flawed structure.
But, those problems are being met with trepidation at the ballot box so far in 2017. Challenges to the political status quo were beaten far enough back in France and the Netherlands to allow Merkel some breathing room to look east and begin pressuring the Visegrad Four countries – The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – on their intransigence over her immigration policy.
On this issue these countries are united. On others, like relations with Russia, they are not. And the key to Trump’s visit will be how he interacts with Hungary’s Viktor Orban. If Orban is greeted warmly by Trump given his is the most vocal opposition to Merkel’s abrogation of national sovereignty then it will signal to the G-20 this meeting will be focused on change than the status quo.
But, Trump’s relationship with Eastern Europe is complicated. Poland has been our attack dog on EU policy towards Russia. The sanctions expansion bill pushed by John McCain to limit Trump’s options is only supported by Poland and the Baltics.
Everyone else is more than happy to see the Nordstream 2 pipeline get completed on time, especially Germany, who will not profit from the gas transit fees, neatly cutting out the eyesore that is now Ukraine.
If Trump comes out of Three Seas crowing about U.S. LNG – liquefied natural gas – exports to Eastern Europe, the meeting between him and Putin will be tense.
Russian To Conclusions
This is why I wouldn’t read too much into their face-to-face meeting. We may already know the answer to how successful it’ll be by the time Trump gets there. Because if Trump wants to further embarrass or marginalize Merkel, the easiest way to do that is to throw a wrench into Nordstream 2.
Not that this should be his over-arching concern, but if Nordstream 2 is conditional to other more pressing concerns it will annoy Putin. Gazprom could finance the pipeline with or without its European partners. If it is forced by the U.S. to do so it will.
Personally, I don’t think these new sanctions are anything other than a misdirection. Trump knows the sanctions won’t stop Nordstream 2 but he’ll try and play the card to test and/or gauge Putin.
Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walked back the U.S. position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a recent memo. Assad’s fate is now Russia’s. The neocons are furious about this saying that Trump is giving in to Russia without getting anything in return.
But, this really isn’t anything of the sort. To Putin, this is a valueless gift. And I expect he will see it for what it is, an appeal to Putin’s supposed vanity, and remind Trump that it is not Russia’s right to determine the course of Syria. Only the Syrian people can do that.
The bigger question is will Trump and Putin come to terms about Iran. Because at this point Trump’s public persona on Iran is unacceptable to everyone outside of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Our confused policy in Syria reflects a tug-of-war between Trump’s pledge to fight ISIS and the U.S. Deep State’s desire to contain Russia and Iran by setting up shop in eastern Syria to have bases closer to both.
Henry Kissinger is likely advising Trump to get Putin to give up one of the two fights he’s currently involved in, Ukraine or Syria. In other words, Putin gets to choose between betraying Assad in Syria or the separatists in Ukraine.
Expect Putin to tell Trump, “Nyet.”