In 1807, Napoleon and Alexander I met at Tilsit, where they signed the eponymous treaty. Exactly 210 years later, Trump and Putin met in Vietnam – and I wouldn’t dare push the parallel any further than that.
For five years after the Tilsit meeting the two countries were at war. Mercifully, judging by the cordiality between Donald I and Vlad II, no such conflict is on the cards.
In deference to their hosts, both leaders donned local garb, which made them look either like waiters at the fashionable Asian eatery Ho Lee-Fook or else superannuated Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
Having served the paparazzi the perennial special Photoop Suey, the two waiters cum leaders had a friendly unofficial talk, making sure that nothing like the post-Tilsit hostilities will ever break out.
The meeting put paid to the greatest obstacle in the way of peace: the seemingly well-established fact that Putin meddled in the US elections. Never mind that all the hackers and trolls did their business from Russia – Vlad had nothing to do with that.
How can Donald be sure? Simple. Vlad told him so, and Donald has no reason not to take him at his word:
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times … He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election… Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that. And I believe. I really believe when he tells me that he means it.”
Given such touching credulity, I’m amazed Donald had to ask so many times. Surely he knows by now that Vlad’s word is his bond.
As a good Presbyterian, Donald follows Christ’s entreaty to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. He’s at least halfway there: serpent-like wisdom still needs a bit of work, but dove-like innocence is there for all to see.
As an old cynic myself, I envy this ability to trust other human beings. Donald must have benefited hugely from his professional life spent in the rarefied moral atmosphere of property development in places like Atlantic City.
It’s clear that Donald can’t even imagine other people lying to him because he himself has never told a lie. And he learned to spare the other man’s feelings too – who in his line of work has ever offended anyone?
Thus Donald understandably rues that Vlad “is very insulted” by such vile allegations. As well he should be: George Washington with his cherry tree has nothing on Vlad’s unimpeachable honesty… sorry, I shouldn’t use any cognate of ‘impeach’ within a few words of mentioning Donald.
Had Donald already achieved serpent-like wisdom to complement his dove-like innocence, he would have stopped to consider Vlad’s form before accepting his words as gospel.
He would have asked himself a question that naturally comes to old cynics like me. Supposing that Vlad did meddle in the elections, how would he have replied to Donald’s point-blank enquiry?
“But of course, Donald, I did. You know it, I know it, the whole bloody world knows it. Are you complaining? Remember I did it for you. You and I, mate. We’re like two jaws of the same vice – we’ll squeeze the living bejeesus out of the world…”?
Donald is no lawyer, but counsel at criminal trials tend to ask a series of questions aimed at establishing the witness’s record of ‘truth and veracity’. If he’s shown to be a serial liar, his testimony is either thrown out or at least treated with caution.
Still, even without the benefit of legal background, Trump ought to have reminded himself of Vlad’s professional life, spent in a considerably less rarefied atmosphere than Donald’s own.
It started in the KGB Second Chief Directorate, responsible for combatting dissent. Fair enough, Vlad had no need to tell any lies there. He could tell any dissident that he’d send him to a camp, where murderers would queue up for his favours – and keep his word.
But then Vlad was transferred to the First Chief Directorate, whose remit was spying on the West and spreading disinformation, which is to say lies, about the Soviet Union.
Hence lying can’t possibly be as alien to him as it seems to be to Donald. In fact, the ability to lie believably was an ironclad requirement in Vlad’s pre-government job.
His first government job was that of deputy mayor of Petersburg, where in 1992 the Council commission headed by Marina Salye investigated Vlad’s record of truth and veracity.
Among other choice bits, the resulting dossier shows that Putin signed deals to export $100 million worth of raw materials in exchange for food. The raw materials dutifully left Russia. No food came back in return – this at a time of rationing in Petersburg.
The dossier also states that Putin’s “quest for personal enrichment and absence of any moral barriers became obvious at the very onset of his career.” But people do change, and it’s possible Vlad had his Damascene experience when becoming the national leader.
Alas, he didn’t. He has lied about every major event occurring in Russia on his watch, and quite a few minor ones.
He lied about those blown-up apartment blocks, staged by the FSB to kick off the second Chechen war and tighten Putin’s grip on power.
He lied about having nothing to do with any murders of dissidents, from Politkovskaya and Starovoitova to Litvinenko and Nemtsov – and hundreds of others, including dozens of journalists.
He lied that the Crimean invasion was executed by the ‘little green men’ who had nothing to do with the Russian army.
He lied that pogroms had been committed against Russians in the Ukraine.
He lied that the Russian army played no role in the subsequent aggression against the Ukraine.
He lied that the airliner Flight MH17 wasn’t shot down by a Russian missile.
He lied about his state sponsoring industrial-scale doping of Olympic athletes.
He lied about having nothing to do with money laundering, through Panama and other offshore havens.
We could be here all day: a tissue of lies is being spun every hour of every day by every Russian spokesman, every print and broadcast medium, and Putin personally.
Then again, we could echo Bertie Russell and argue that the sun doesn’t have to rise tomorrow just because it rose yesterday. Yes, that was a clear-cut fallacy, but still: just because Vlad has never uttered a word of truth in his life, it doesn’t mean he’s lying in this case.
I am trying to develop Donald’s innocence (and Bertie’s philosophical depth) to believe that. I’ll let you know how I get on.