Trump shows he trusts an ex-KGB agent more than US intelligence

For those hoping the US president would refrain from making unwarranted concessions to Vladimir Putin, the omens were not good. Before his departure for Europe, Trump predicted the Putin conversation was likely to be easier than his discussions with his Nato allies and Theresa May.

He tweeted hours before the meeting that relations between the US and Russia were so poor because of American foolishness and stupidity, thus exonerating Putin for much of his behaviour in the past decade. In so doing Trump went into the Helsinki conference chamber not quite naked, but at least pleading guilty on his country’s behalf.

In the opening exchanges of the meeting, prior to the ushering out of the photographers, Trump declared the world wanted to see Russia and the US get along. Listing the issues he predicted he would discuss, Trump omitted from his chosen agenda any challenging subject such as Ukraine, or the evidence that Russian intelligence agencies interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections.

From the very first minute of their 45-minute press conference, Trump deferred to Putin, allowing him to make the opening lengthy statement setting out the parameters of what had been discussed and what had been agreed – in essence a new era of intelligence, military, political and business cooperation that unravels the second cold war caused by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014.

Key moments from the Trump-Putin press conference – video

In some specific areas – future economic sanctions against Russia, the ending of the war in Syria, including the future role of Iran, the recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the role of Nato troops in the Baltics – there was little detail. But Trump accepted the Syrian civil war was at an end, as long as Israel’s interests were respected.

But Trump’s repeated references to the start of a new era made it clear that the US president wants these frozen conflicts to be defrosted, and in many cases, responsibility for their existence lies with America, not Russia. The two sides’ bureaucracies will now be set in motion, probably starting with talks on arms control. It may well be that the US state department proves less supine than the president.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Trump’s European tour was how much the tone of near-docile respect to Putin, and to Russia, stood in stark contrast to the insults he dished out over the previous six days to the EU, his declared foe, and to Nato, May and Angela Merkel.

Trump’s performance in Helsinki was a second wounding blow to May in less than a week. The UK has been the most forward of European powers in its criticisms of Russia. But Trump made no reference to the British intelligence assessment that Russia was responsible for a nerve agent attack in Wiltshire that resulted in the death of a British citizen last week.

This new approach to Russia opens an unprecedented chasm in judgment between London and Washington about how to handle the country that has been the west’s premier adversary since 1945.

The US-UK relationship is based on intelligence cooperation and a common loyalty born of history, but Britain now has to absorb the fact that the US president is willing to trust the word of a former KGB agent ahead of the consensus of his own intelligence community. The killer quote that will send a chill through western intelligence agencies runs as follows: “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Once it was thought the Trump doctrine was no enemies, no allies, just permanent destabilisation. After the last six days, it is possible even that Hobbesian assessment is wrong. Trump, for whatever contorted reason, does have an ally, but that ally does not reside in western Europe.


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