BERLIN — To President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, what unfolded in Helsinki on Monday was apparently a success — or even “better than super,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
To many observers in the United States — Democrats and Republicans alike — the verdict about Trump's meeting with Putin was much less enthusiastic. Some described it “embarrassing,” or even as “treasonous.” The president largely avoided criticism of Putin during a news conference following their meeting and, according to my colleagues, also refrained from bringing up uncomfortable details and accusations during their talks.
Can it really be that hard to confront the Russian president? It shouldn't be, judging from how other world leaders have stood up to their Russian counterpart.
Take French President Emmanuel Macron, whose campaign emails were hacked prior to his victory last year.
Emmanuel Macron: Russian “organs of influence ... told lies about myself.”
When Macron met Putin for the first time shortly after the election last May, he didn't hold back.
“Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik were organs of influence during this campaign which, on several occasions, told lies about myself and my campaign.... Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave as media organizations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda — no more, no less,” Macron said, standing next to Putin at a news conference. Both RT and Sputnik are funded by the Russian government and have denied Macron's accusations.
While Macron was widely praised in France for his tough stance on Putin, other leaders have given the Russian president the benefit of doubt, at least in the early days of their tenures.
Theresa May: “So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”
When British Prime Minister Theresa May called Putin for the first time in August 2016, the official statement Downing Street subsequently issued avoided criticism and openly argued in favor of improving ties. “The prime minister noted the importance of the relationship between the U.K. and Russia and expressed the hope that, despite differences on certain issues, they could communicate in an open and honest way about the issues that mattered most to them,” a spokeswoman said at the time.
The statement came before the U.S. elections and the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain, and when May refers to Putin these days, what she has to say sounds very different. In November, for instance, she accused the Kremlin of trying to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” in Britain and the Western world.
“So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed,” May said during a speech.
Angela Merkel: “A vibrant civil society can only exist when the individual organizations can work without fear or concern.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel may govern a country that was just branded a “captive of the Russians” by Trump, but even she had far fewer issues calling out the man who supposedly controls her.
The woman who has been in charge of Germany for more than 12 years has had her fair share of opportunities to confront a Russian president who has turned increasingly against the West during her tenure.
After raids on German nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia, Merkel told Putin at a news conference in 2013 that she considered the incidents to be “intrusion.”
“I made it clear that a vibrant civil society can only exist when the individual organizations can work without fear or concern,” she said at the time.
Last year, Merkel pressed Putin on human rights, saying that “it is important to have the right to demonstrate in a democracy, and the role of [nongovernmental organizations] is very important.”
“We’ve heard some very negative reports about how homosexuals are treated in Chechnya, and I asked Mr. Putin to use his influence to ensure the rights of such minorities,” Merkel said. The German chancellor was referring to reports that Chechen authorities had arrested and tortured dozens of gay men, and her criticism may have helped to improve their situation, indicating how influential high-level criticism at a meeting of world leaders can be at times. And sometimes, words aren't even necessary to get the point across, as Merkel's eye-rolling at Putin during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year showed.
Meanwhile, her predecessor, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, experimented with Trump's Russia-coziness early on, calling Putin a “flawless democrat” and a friend.
Germans wondered what was in it for the German leader, and only days after Schroeder was voted out of office, they learned the answer. After hastily signing a deal to construct the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany during his last days as chancellor, he started to oversee the project implementation himself, leading Nord Stream AG’s shareholder committee. Since then, he has moved up in the Russian business hierarchy to become the chairman of Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft.
In Schroeder's case, concerns over his friendly ties to Putin proved to be justified and mark a strong contrast to today's generation of Western leaders. And with Trump's Russia stance reminding some here of Schroeder's practices, Germans likely aren't the only ones wondering why the U.S. president is so insistent on playing nice with Putin.
More on WorldViews: