Europeans have reacted with a mixture of alarm and relief to Monday’s summit between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
They are relieved the U.S. leader did not give away any aces but they remain queasy about Trump’s apparent eagerness to get on with the Russian leader while displaying to them a combativeness normally reserved for opponents rather than allies.
Their mood was downcast even before the summit kicked-off, disheartened by President Trump denouncing the European Union as a greater “foe” than Russia and China in a media interview just hours before the summit in Finland’s capital Helsinki.
Beforehand, there was alarm in Europe on whether the U.S. President would be lured by the more experienced and disciplined summiteer Putin into giving ground on the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula or Moscow's fomenting of rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But the Russian president apparently secured no concessions on Crimea, no public promise to re-admit Russia into the G7, and no reversal on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
And Trump maintained opposition to the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline, which will be increasing Russian energy exports to Germany.
But what Trump described as a “deeply productive dialogue” and a first step in improving strained relations between the U.S. and Russia has prompted accusations in Europe that, in his eagerness to be an international deal-maker, he overlooks Kremlin aggression — including alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 White House race.
The summit dominated the front pages of Europe’s newspapers Tuesday with Spain’s ABC running a full-page picture of the leaders of the world’s biggest nuclear-armed nations shaking hands, under the tart headline: “Trump and Putin: Such friends.” The paper said the two leaders had buried the Cold War and the issue of Russian interference in America’s election — at least “for now.”
Another Spanish newspaper, El País, said Trump was befriending Putin while bashing the EU. And Belgium’s Le Soir argued Trump had “aligned himself” with Putin over his own authorities on the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Some newspapers were less indignant. Belgium’s De Morgen wrote that the leaders were “working on their relationship” in a story headlined: “On to a better future.”
But Britain’s Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that has generally been sympathetic to Trump, especially over his spats with Europe, said the U.S. leader’s aim to establish peace was laudable. At the same time, it warned the summit was a big win for the Kremlin.
“By affording him [Putin] the trappings of an equal partner Mr. Trump has given President Putin what he craved most: respect… The relationship has been reset without the Russians having to change anything,” the paper said in an editorial.
The reaction of European leaders and officials to Trump has been subdued. Few have gone public with their thoughts, preferring to stay out of the furious fight between the U.S. president and his critics in the U.S. over the summit. But privately there is indignation at Trump’s blaming the West as much as Russia for the strained relations, with German officials saying the summit advances their fears of a widening rift between Europe and Trump-led America.
Privately, they worry that Trump’s determination to forge a personal bond with Putin is adding to a shift in the dynamics of America’s relationship with Europe. “I am relieved there were no concessions,” said a senior British diplomat. “But it is unnerving to see the U.S. President being friendlier with Putin than with America’s traditional allies,” he said.
Speaking to Britain's Sky News, Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the U.N., said he regarded Trump's effort to forge better relations with Putin a "good thing." But faulted the U.S. leader, saying, "he is doing it naively and is taking too much from President Putin at face value."
Coming on the back of a pre-summit interview during which Trump described the EU as a “foe,” European officials and analysts are still scrambling to understand what he meant and whether the U.S. and Europe are set on a path of separation.
Some officials console themselves by saying Trump seems to use "foe" and "competitor" as interchangeable. And they point to the formal paperwork of diplomacy as more reassuring, like the 23-page communique agreed at last week’s NATO summit, which reaffirmed the alliance’s principle of collective defense and rebuked Russia.
“We are confronted with that dilemma that we have often had with the Trump administration,” said Mark Leonard of the European Council for Foreign Relations.
“The president is a raging bull, he makes all sorts of statements, yet the policy beneath him doesn’t look that dramatically different than traditional American policy. And so people are left trying to figure out who they should believe — the policy or the President of the United States.”
In some ways, the Europeans have no alternative but to hold fast to the idea that the transatlantic relationship remains solid — their security assumptions are based on it and they are not ready to go it alone, say analysts.
In the margins of last week’s summit, U.S. senators and government officials went out of their way to reassure America’s formal European allies and to soothe frayed nerves, saying they should discount Trump’s freewheeling statements and not interpret them at face value, arguing it is the way he wheels-and-deals, pursuing tactics of disruption to get what he wants. “It isn’t personal; it is business, I was told by a White House aide,” a European minister told VOA.
Cutting through Trump’s transactional approach, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the “unbreakable trans-Atlantic bond," underscoring after NATO’s tumultuous summit Washington’s enduring commitment to peace and prosperity on the European continent at a meeting of southern European security ministers in Zagreb, Croatia.
But some European officials see an emerging trend with U.S. policy decisions and actual decisions being colored — or telegraphed — by the presidential tweets, pointing to Trump’s early social-media threats of a trade war with Europe and his subsequent hiking of tariffs on imported European metals.
“President Trump has personally made criticism of Europe, and particularly the European Union, pivotal to his foreign policy,” according to Robin Niblett of Britain’s Chatham House. “Europe is the poster child for his thesis that America has been taken advantage of for the past 30 years,” Niblett said in an expert comment posted on the Chatham House web-site.
“Trump doesn’t believe in allies,” argued Mark Leonard in a podcast. “If you think about America First and you think about the transactional approach, it means you work with the countries you can work with at that moment. You don’t really have long-term relationships. Allies are a problem. They are sort of like relatives who show up at your house to borrow money and stay all day and won’t leave your pool,” he says.