Trump is not Putin's puppet and here's why

Trump has been trying to erode Russia's monopoly over Europe's gas market for the past year.

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    President Donald Trump shows off a football given to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland [Chris McGrath/Getty]
    President Donald Trump shows off a football given to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland [Chris McGrath/Getty]

    The July 16 meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced polar opposite reactions in the public sphere. For Trump and Putin supporters and the Russian state media, the summit was a great success in improving Russian-US relations. For American Democrats, some Republicans and the US mainstream media, it was yet another proof that Trump has become Putin's puppet.

    The outrage of the latter group was so strong that the US president had to retract his claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 US elections.

    The only thing that both sides seem to agree on is that Trump found common language with Putin. The problem is that one side perceived this as treason, the other as diplomatic talent.

    What both of these interpretations miss is that Trump is like Putin in that he has to be judged by his actions, not by his rhetoric. And there seems to be no Russian puppetry involved in what he has been doing in recent months.

    Let's take his policies on the energy sector, where Russia's national interests lie.

    Oil and gas are the Kremlin's main foreign policy weapon and its main tool of ensuring internal stability. The rise in oil prices in the early 2000s made Putin what he is today. Gas is also the main leverage he has over the EU. Russia is Europe's main exporter of gas and currently provides for 50 percent of its gas needs. Gas and oil pipelines are also one of the Kremlin's main tools of control over energy-exporting countries in Central Asia, like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

    But this is also the weakness of Putin's system. Russia's economy continues to grow more dependent on the export of energy resources and today, they account for more than 60 percent of all exports.

    And what has Trump been doing about that? He's been putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil output in order to compensate for Iran's elimination from the market by US sanctions and keep the prices low. And he's expecting Russia to back that move, even though the Russian economy is still suffering from a slump caused by the fall in oil prices in 2014.

    More importantly, Trump has also been demanding that Europe cancel Nordstream-2, a gas pipeline project which is meant to increase the supply of Russian gas to northern Europe, especially Germany. Nordstream is Putin's brainchild and is important not just from an economic perspective; it is meant to increase Russian leverage over Europe.

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    Putin has already invested a lot of diplomatic, lobbyist and financial resources in the project. In trying to block it, Trump is following in the footsteps of the Obama administration which managed to pressure Bulgaria into cancelling the South Stream gas pipeline which was meant to supply Russian gas to southern Europe and Austria.

    The reason why Trump wants to undermine Nordstream is because he would like to keep the European market open to US liquefied gas (LNG). Last June, Poland received its first shipment of LNG from the US. A month later, Trump visited the country and pitched US LNG to a meeting of 12 Central and Eastern European countries heavily dependent on Russian gas.

    "Let me be clear about one crucial point. The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so," he said at that meeting. It's not difficult to guess who he was referring to.

    That summer the first major shipments of US LNG arrived in Lithuania, Spain, and the UK, as well.

    Then in March this year, the US Energy Information Administration reported that US LNG exports quadrupled from 2016 to 2017; exports to European countries (including Turkey) increased five-fold.

    Just days before Trump met Putin, he chastised German Chancellor Angela Merkel over Germany's gas imports saying her country is "captive" to Russia.

    If it were Barack Obama who made such statements, Russian state media would have come after him. But there was no outrage on Russian political talk shows about this, probably because the Kremlin is still secretly hoping that Trump might come around and make some concessions on the sanctions. And there wasn't much interest in this statement in US media because after all, it contradicted the convenient narrative that Trump is now Putin's puppet.

    Beyond oil and gas, Russia is also starting to suffer from Trump's tariff wars (the US is Russia's fifth-biggest trading partner). Metals are also a big part of Russian exports and Trump's decision to impose a 25-percent tariff on the import of steel and 10 percent on aluminum was bad news for Russia. The losses Russian companies are currently suffering are still not that big but this is only the beginning of the trade war.

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    In the foreign policy realm, Trump might seem like he's playing by Russia's fiddle but even that is related to business for him.

    Iran, a major point of supposed contention between Russia and the US, is an issue Trump had to raise with Putin because it pays off: in big security contracts with Gulf states and in political support from Israel for the 2020 elections.

    On Syria, it might look like he is stepping back, but that is not because he acknowledges Putin's interest there. The US president from the very beginning wanted to pull out from the country after he declared ISIL's defeat. The only thing that has kept US troops on the ground there has been the Pentagon, which also took the decision in February this year to strike a group of Russian mercenaries and pro-regime troops who were advancing on their positions in northern Syria.

    And on Ukraine, Trump doesn't seem to be making any major concessions; in fact, in January this year, the US sold Javelin anti-tank launchers to Kiev - something that even the Obama administration wouldn't do.

    In other words, Trump does not behave as Putin's puppet. He behaves as a person who sees himself as a great deal-maker, who is able to negotiate with anyone - from Putin to Kim Jong-un - to get a good deal.

    The US president is a businessman who started his career in the real estate sector. In this type of business, one does not care who buys the penthouse as long as it is swiftly paid for. A number of apartments in the Trump Tower, for example, were bought by people of questionable or criminal background (including Russian citizens).

    In this sense, it is not a surprise that Trump is dealing with anyone and everyone in the pursuit of the most lucrative deal.

    Of course, whether this strategy is indeed effective or not can be debated. Many experts think it isn't, but this does not mean that Trump's policies are dictated by Putin; they are dictated by his own views, however wrong they may be.

    This is not necessarily good for Putin. Despite all the niceties exchanged and footballs passed at the summit, there is still no development on the major issues of concern for the Kremlin: sanctions and Ukraine. If this is how Trump will do business for the next two years and if reelected, the another four afterwards, the Russian president might start thinking that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails might not have been such a good idea after all.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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