What fun the internet is having now that Vladimir Putin has finally met Donald Trump. Social media is teeming with jokes, gifs, and memes about the two big dawgs of global politics finally coming together. It’s the great bromance of the populist age. Underneath the hilarity, however, there remains intense suspicions about the relationship between Trump and Putin – it is now widely accepted, even if the evidence is still hotly disputed, that Russia ‘hacked the election’ in order to ensure Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Trump’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov in May was considered highly nefarious, especially after Trump accidentally gave away a state secret, apparently just to show off. Reports today suggest, darkly, that Putin will ‘manipulate Trump with flattery’ to make him bend to his will.
But the reality is different. The Trump administration has not initiated any great rapprochement between Moscow and Washington; in fact, the irony of the Trump presidency is that for all the people saying ‘OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING’ on the internet, we’ve seen no substantial change in US-Russian relations, just the usual subterranean cold-war antagonism. To show that he isn’t unduly favourable towards Russia, Trump has been forced to be more opposed than perhaps he otherwise would have been. There has been no ‘Russia reset’ in American attitudes towards the Kremlin, as there was at the beginning of the Obama presidency. Far from being Putin’s puppet, Trump has resorted to the standard, 21st century US approach to the Great Bear, which is to be moderately hostile. On Thursday, he criticised Russia for destabilising the Ukraine, and even for supporting ‘hostile regimes including Syria and Iran’. The ‘why can’t we get along with Russia?’ line from Trump’s election campaign has been all but forgotten.
After his first meeting with Putin, Obama said he was ‘very convinced the prime minister is a man of today and he’s got his eyes firmly on the future.’ Trump will be hugely derided if he says anything nearly so positive. No doubt today’s encounter will be reasonably friendly – the now standard Trump ploy is to be very rude about someone before a summit and then play nice. But the overall tone of his East v West rhetoric so far has in fact been as anti-Russian as any Washington hawk could have wished for.