In a much anticipated bilateral summit, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland earlier this week, and the results were shocking.
During a press conference at the conclusion of the July 16th summit, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Contradicting U.S. intelligence agencies, which place the blame squarely on Russia, Trump stated: “I don't see any reason why it would be Russia."
Trump’s statement, coupled with his deferential treatment of Putin, set off a political firestorm in the United States. When the American President arrived back home, his performance in Finland was met with widespread criticism from many different sources, including leading Republican politicians as well as Fox News, which usually grants Trump favourable coverage.
However, in the age of 24 hours cable news and social media, there is a lot of political noise but very little sober, rational analysis of foreign policy. So it is illuminating to hear what an expert familiar with the ways of diplomacy has to say about the Helsinki Summit and Donald Trump’s controversial performance.
Chris Alexander, who is perhaps best known as a former immigration minister in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, served for many years as a diplomat, including as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan. In Aug. of 2003, at the age of 35, Alexander took up his post as ambassador in Kabul. And he later served as the Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009.
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Before his rise to the top of the diplomatic ranks, Alexander, who speaks fluent Russian, worked for many years on the Russia file. “I spent a lot of my professional life there,” the former diplomat said of Russia.
In 1991, Alexander joined what was then known as the Department of External Affairs. Just weeks later, there was an attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, then Premier of the Soviet Union. And Alexander was tasked with watching CNN around the clock to help keep the Canadian embassy in Russia up to date on the latest developments regarding the August coup attempt. After that assignment, Alexander was assigned to the Russia desk in the European division at the Department of External Affairs.
“In 1992, I was one of the first desk officers for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine,” Alexander said of his advancement within the ranks at External Affairs in Ottawa. “And then in 1993, I started a first posting in Russia, the third secretary and the vice-consul.”
After a three year posting in Russia, the young diplomat returned to Ottawa and worked with Canada’s G8 Sherpa before being tapped to run the Russia desk as deputy director in 1997.
Alexander later returned to Russia as “the number two” in the Canadian embassy at Moscow.
“I spent really 12 years working more or less continuously on Russia and on Canada-Russia relations, and on Russian integration into global institutions, and on reform, supporting parliamentary institutions in Russia, supporting federalism in Russia, supporting democracy in Russia, and supporting our relations in the Arctic and North,” Alexander recalled.
“It has been painful to see a lot of that unwound, coming apart with the rise of Putin, the unilateralist, violent strongman who is hell bent on turning the clock back,” said Alexander, noting the erosion of democracy and press freedom in Russia.
What does Alexander make of the controversial comments that Donald Trump made at the Helsinki Summit press conference? “It sounds to me like he was ingratiating himself with the President of Russia, that he wanted to impress the President of Russia with his loyalty to him and to Russia’s view of the world,” Alexander replied bluntly.
“And I have never seen something so abject from any Western leader, let alone from any democratic leader, let alone the President of the United States in my entire life. I was gobsmacked.”
Is America to blame?
Despite ample evidence of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea, support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and interference in the democratic process in a number of countries, Donald Trump said that Russia is not responsible for strained relations with the United States.
On July 16, 2018, the U.S. President tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt.”
Is Trump correct? Is the United States to blame for poor bilateral relations between the United States and Russia? “I think U.S. policy has been weak and incoherent,” Alexander conceded, noting that President Barack Obama attempted to reset relations with Russia. As was the case with President George W. Bush’s attempts to improve relations with the Putin regime, Obama’s initiative “ended in failure,” he said.
“The bottom line is that Putin has shut down democracy and fundamental freedoms in Russia. He has invaded two countries now (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014), and undermined democracy in many more. These are not signs of friendship or shared values. On the contrary, these are attacks on institutions that we hold very dear that have been going unanswered for too long.”
In Alexander’s estimation, “the real problem began in 2011 when Obama withdrew the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq.” And he said American attempts to disengage from the Middle East created a political vacuum in Iraq, contributed to a civil war in Syria that “flared up into one of the most significant genocides of our time,” he said.
In addition, Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East “gave someone as ruthless as Putin an opportunity to shape events that he never should have had.” The abdication of the West’s responsibility in Syria was “the key enabler of Putin’s muscle flexing in Ukraine and of his sustained attack on democracy in many Western countries since 2014.”
Alexander warns that “as long as we continue to show weakness, as both Obama and Trump have done in the face of Putin, we are going to be in trouble.”
American foreign policy regarding Russia has failed in recent decades, Alexander repeated for emphasis. “But what we need is to be more assertive and stronger. And Donald Trump seems inclined to be the opposite.”
The day after the July 16th Helsinki Summit was the fourth anniversary of the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed insurgents are waging a bloody war in hopes of carving up the country. International investigators concluded that a Russian weapons system, the Buk missile, knocked MH17 out of the sky, killing everyone on board.
On July 17, 2018, Karin Mossenlechner, the Ambassador of The Netherlands to Malaysia, posted on Twitter: “Today four years ago, 298 innocent people, on their way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, lost their lives. Among them 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysians and many other nationals. Thinking of all of them and their loved ones. We will not forget. #MH17”
The foreign ministers of the G7 also issued a joint statement, declaring their support “of Australia and the Netherlands as they call on Russia to account for its role in this incident and to cooperate fully with the process to establish the truth and achieve justice for the victims of MH17 and their next of kin.”
Should Trump have raised the issue of MH17 with Putin and publicly called for Russia to be held to account for the unprovoked destruction of a civilian airliner? “Absolutely,” Alexander replied without hesitation.
“Remember what the international reaction was when the Korean airline flight went down so many years ago,” said Alexander in reference to a 1983 incident in which the Soviet Union shot down a commercial airliner filled with innocent civilians.
On Sept. 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines passenger jet, Fight KAL007, strayed into the Soviet Union’s airspace just west of Sakhalin Island and was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter. All 269 people on board, including 61 Americans, perished. At first, the Soviets denied responsibility for the downing of KAL007. But when it became apparent to the world what had happened, the Kremlin claimed that the civilian airliner was an American spy plane in an attempt to justify mass murder.
Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan was both shocked and outraged by the incident. Cutting his vacation at his ranch in California short, Reagan returned to the White House to deliver a nationally televised address. And he did not mince words.
“This was the Soviet Union against the world,” Reagan said of the destruction of Flight KAL007. “It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate others.”
“We all cried bloody murder, because that was what it was,” Alexander said of the downing of KAL007. “And now Trump meets Putin on the eve of this anniversary (MH17) and does nothing apparently, either privately or publicly. It’s not just Orwellian, it’s deeply depressing.”
The illegal occupation and annexation of another country’s territory is “bad enough,” Alexander said of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea. “When you add to that indiscriminate civilian casualties and an attempt to cover-up the truth, you are getting into a really diabolical territory,” he said of the MH17 incident.
Dutch and Malaysian authorities have attempted to uncover the truth regarding MH17, said Alexander, “and they need the support of their strongest ally.” It was “really disgraceful that was not forthcoming,” he said of Trump’s lack of support.
Alexander lives just three blocks from a family in Ajax, ON, whose son perished when MH17 was blown out of the sky. He was the only Canadian victim of the attack.” And the former diplomat said “nothing can ever compensate for that loss for this poor couple” whom he and his wife met with on the fourth anniversary of their son’s murder.
“When they heard the news about this flight, they were obviously like all the other families, anxious for news,” he said of that dreadful day four years ago. “They came and knocked on our door, because we’re neighbours. We had to receive the confirmation (of their son’s death) together, and they have been devastated ever since.”
Trump’s supporters point to the fact that he has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They also contend that the sale of American weapons to Ukraine is evidence of the President’s strong support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
Is Trump strong enough in his support of Ukraine? “No, he definitely is not,” Alexander said. "I have heard very little new from him.”
In fact, Alexander said that it has been other parts of the U.S. government, not the White House, that have been helpful to Ukraine. “Trump has made no personal contribution, I would say, to supporting Ukraine,” he asserted
In addition, Alexander alleged that Trump’s “obvious closeness, which verges on subservience to Putin, is deeply unsettling for all Ukrainians.” And the former Conservative Cabinet minister wants to know “if Trump has been so strong on these issues, then why is Vladimir Putin saying in Moscow today that the President of the United States made him a very interesting offer on Ukraine—without revealing what that might have been?”
Alexander also maintains that “there are serious questions about the relationship between these two men, about Trump’s history in Russia, and about the essential leverage the Russian government seems to have over him.”
At the G20 Summit held in Brisbane, Australian in 2014, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confronted Putin face-to-face. "I guess I'll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine," Harper reportedly told the Russian strongman, much to the delight of the Australian press.
Should Trump have taken a page out of Stephen Harper’s playbook and confronted Putin over Ukraine at the Helsinki Summit? “Absolutely,” replied Alexander. “The more leaders that embrace that principled approach the better,” he said of his former leader’s tough stand on Ukraine.
“But we’ve all known from long before the election that Donald Trump is not going to be that kind of leader. And this is one of the reasons why the Russians have been so anxious, with other unsavoury players from around the world, to smooth Trump’s way into the White House.”
Alexander speculates that the reason Trump is “so adamant” in denying that there was Russian interference in the election, or that his campaign colluded with the Russians, is because he doesn’t want his legitimacy as President to be undermined.
Alexander wants to know why the American President seems to be uninterested in protecting U.S. democracy from concerted Russian attacks. And Alexander contends that “it wasn’t even a possibility” that Trump would publicly challenge Putin at the Helsinki Summit regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, because the American President sees the Russian leader as an ally, “not as a foe, or an adversary.”
Moreover, Alexander described Trump’s behaviour at the Helsinki Summit press conference with Putin as “obsequious.” And he pointed out that Trump met with Putin without notetakers in private meetings. “I could not imagine a Canadian prime minister spending that amount of time, anything more than five minutes with a foreign leader, let alone a known KGB operative now in office for a long time, whose stock and trade is manipulation and blackmail.”
“For Harper and for our government, it was quite simple, Russia and Putin had been given the opportunity to play a constructive role in this body (the G8) for many years,” Alexander said of the Harper government’s approach to Russia. “It became clear to Stephen Harper, I think, over many G8 meetings, that the values that are the foundation for those discussions were not shared by Putin, and it was not possible to have helpful discussion when he was essentially acting the role of spoiler on almost every issue.”
After the invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Harper spearheaded the successful campaign to expel Russia from the G8. And Alexander said he was “absolutely bowled over” to hear Trump say at the recent G7 Summit hosted by Canada that Russia should be allowed back in the group. “By making that suggestion, he is essentially arguing that the annexation and invasion of the territory of another country doesn’t matter.”
As a result, Alexander questions “the judgement and the ability of this President of the United States to pursue his country’s national interests.”
Will Trump’s performance at Helsinki embolden Putin? “Yes, I think Putin is emboldened by his latest (political) mandate, by his ability to influence election outcomes from Germany to Italy to the United States to Canada to Brexit,” he answered.
However, Alexander noted that “the one democracy where he (Putin) hasn’t had success recently is France. And that’s one of the reasons why (French President Emmanuel) Macron has been one of the toughest in standing up to him.”
Circling back to Trump, Alexander declared that it is “totally unprecedented” for a U.S. President to be perceived “to be in the pocket of the Russian state.” Whether it is true or not, he stated that the perception is “hugely damaging” to Trump’s “prestige and influence” and is “hugely beneficial to Putin who is a relatively weak player.”
Alexander believes that Putin’s actions have caused Russia’s isolation internationally, harkenning back to the days of Stalin. And due to international sanctions “and bad decisions,” Russia’s economy is smaller than Canada’s.
Given Russia’s weakness, Alexander said it is “perverse” that Putin seems to be “calling the shots in relations with the White House,” and “the sooner it ends, the better.”
Long walk back from Helsinki
On July 17, Trump attempted to walk back his controversial Helsinki comments, claiming that he had misspoken. But Alexander isn’t buying it.
“He’s lying,” Alexander said of Trump’s statement delivered at the White House. “He said those things in Helsinki, and he tried to walk them back, as any person of low integrity is liable to try to do. Why did he contradict himself and make up these claims that he inflicted on us yesterday? Basically, because he saw that his statements in Helsinki were so bad that his core constituency was drifting away. He was criticized by Fox News for those statements in Helsinki. He was criticized by (Republicans) Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, and a huge swathe of the Republican leadership in the Senate and elsewhere.”
According to Alexander, “this is where the robustness of the U.S. system comes into play.” The checks and balances of the American system of government can limit Trump’s power to act, he said.
For example, Alexander noted that despite Trump being in the White House, the U.S. Congress has strengthened the sanctions regime against Russia.
Freedom of the press
On July 15, Trump tweeted: “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems.”
What did Alexander make of that statement? “It’s abhorrent,” he answered. “These lines could have been taken out of a George Orwell novel.”
Alexander said it is “very disturbing” that Trump is calling upon his political base to “vilify” one of the pillars of democracy. And he hopes that Trump’s “intemperate” comments do not lead to violence.
Is Donald Trump the leader of the free world? “No, not for my money,” Alexander responded.
But he added that many Americans “have their heads screwed on right.” And he is encouraged that there are many leaders in the international community that can help guide the international system in the absence of American leadership under Trump.
However, Alexander said it is troubling that the world’s democracies have turned inward. “And we’re not squaring up to our responsibilities to prevent genocide, to implement the global goals to help more people globally to have the opportunities we take for granted.” And he said that “we need to look out beyond our borders, because the keys to our own prosperity and our own future success lie in strengthening these global relationships, not in undermining them.”
Have we entered the post-American era in which U.S. power no longer guarantees international peace and security and a rules-based system? “No, I think there’s always been collective responsibility for those rules,” Alexander replied. For example, while acknowledging the “outsized” role played by the United States in the establishment of the United Nations, he said other nations also contributed.
However, Alexander acknowledged that Trump and his foreign policy team have undertaken a number of necessary actions. For example, he stated that the Trump administration has gotten tougher on Pakistan, “calling out Iran for its state sponsorship of terrorism,” and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“These are all calls no other president had been able to make. And only U.S. leadership can make a difference in each of those respects. But will he follow through? Will he be coherent in following up those initiatives? Only time will tell. But I just hope that the right advisers are in the room when these decisions are made, because his own judgement is very much in question at this point.”
Canada, elections, & Russian meddling
Going forward, what should Canada do to protect itself and help other democracies in a world where America is largely absent under Donald Trump’s leadership? “I think we need to do a few things,” Alexander said. “One, remember that we still need to have a broad-based successful relationship with the United States—even with Donald Trump as a President with whom we have differences.” He contends that there’s “room to build common ground with the United States, and I wish we’d do more of that.”
Second, Alexander said that Canada needs “to be a serious opponent of protectionism” and do everything to ensure that the current trade conflict started by the Trump administration doesn’t “spiral into a kind of wall building in commercial terms that led to disaster in the 1930s.”
Third, “we need to project our leadership beyond our borders on a much larger scale,” Alexander asserted. However, he said that Canada’s contribution to international peace and security is “paltry” at present. For instance, he said that this country’s defence and international assistance budgets remain “far too low.”
Given that Canada has raised the ire of Vladimir Putin by passing its own version of the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials complicit in human rights abuses, is Alexander concerned that Russia will attempt to meddle in the upcoming 2019 Canadian federal election? “I think they already have,” declared Alexander.
“There were bot armies at work in the Scottish referendum on independence, in the Canadian election in 2015, in Brexit, and in the U.S. election in 2016, and in many other elections in democracies around the world. So we should be doing much more to ensure that social media and other channels for that influence are not available to Putin’s ruthless strategies in 2019, or ever again.”
Alexander believes that Canada has been “principled” regarding the Magnitsky Act, on Ukraine, on Russia in the G8, and “on a lot of issues.” But he said that Canada needs “to continue down that path, and that means protecting our democracy, ensuring Russian influence is not able to be brought to bear.”
In addition, Alexander wants Canada to tighten the sanctions regime targeting the Putin regime. “I haven’t seen us, in the wake of the Magnitsky Act, really going after Vladimir Putin’s entourage, to make sure that their wealth, their mobility, their access to partnership and all the benefits they can afford are restricted. And we should be, as we did in the Harper years, leading the charge to zero in on Putin and his clique, because they’re the ones responsible for this,” he said.
“To the extent that we can focus our response on Putin and his closest associates and avoid punishing Russia and Russians as a whole, we will have success. And we will be shortening the shelf life of the Putin era.”
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specializes in international relations, human rights, religious freedom, and humanitarian affairs. He has a Master’s Degree in political studies from Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston