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The first Putin-Trump meeting has been much anticipated and much delayed. Early this year, there was talk of it being Donald Trump’s first international meeting, with some even mentioning Reykjavik as a possible venue, echoing the famous meeting of 1986. Then there was a chance the two leaders might meet in May after the NATO summit, just as then president George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin once met in Slovenia. In the end, a multilateral format gave both sides an ironclad alibi—this was not a special personal encounter, just a meeting at the G20 summit at Hamburg.
As far as the Russian side was concerned, Putin wanted a meeting that wouldn’t be announced too far in advance, but would last as long as possible. A spontaneous, almost impromptu meeting that went over schedule could be hailed as a diplomatic success for Russia.
Putin’s wishes more or less came true—that when the presidents finally met last Friday they found so many mutually important topics that they didn’t want to stop, and that Putin confirmed his ability to win over even the most cautious interlocutor just by looking him in the eye.
For Trump, the meeting was a bigger challenge. Every extra fifteen minutes behind closed doors in Putin’s company adds credibility to accusations of collusion, treason, or at best inability to confront the enemy.
Timing was important, and officials from the two countries differed on how long they expected the meeting to last. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov announced an hour-long session, Trump’s press office mentioned 30 minutes. Predictably, the presidents exceeded these limitations and spent 2 hours and 16 minutes in each other’s company.
It looks as though Trump doesn’t need a personal friendship with Putin as much as he wants to be able to boast of better results than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton achieved. This can actually be done either by becoming friends with Putin or by crushing him. All that Trump cares about is the end result.
Trump is capable of talking tough, as we saw with the cruise missile strike against the Syrian regime. And in his speech in Poland he declared: “We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere… and to instead join the community of responsible nations.” But he is in the Catch 22 situation of knowing that taking a harsher line in dealing with Russia also looks like a sign of weakness back home, a capitulation to domestic criticism.
There were no concluding remarks, but the two presidents shook hands and, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, agreed on four issues.
The two leaders agreed on a ceasefire in southwest Syria that “will be monitored by the Russian military police in coordination with Americans and Jordanians.” Essentially, it’s a go-ahead for a Russian ground operation in Syria, which, of course, will be conducted not only in the interests of the local population but also of the government in Damascus. The “coordination” that Lavrov talks about sounds very much like a low-key, cool-headed alliance.
The appointment of a new U.S. special envoy for Ukraine with a special channel of communication with the Russian special envoy looks like a more solid arrangement than the previous one.
The idea of creating a joint “impenetrable” cybersecurity unit—something that Trump later backed away from—was the most remarked-upon development. Critics of Trump and Russia may see this development as an important admission by both sides that the reported Russian meddling in the American elections did indeed occur. The majority of Trump’s American critics see this as being a straightforward capitulation to Putin, but in Moscow this proposal looked very different.
“He began by raising the concern of the American people of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He pressed him more than once,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at his press conference. Indeed, it looks like both sides acknowledge harmful activity or at least Russia’s capacity to do harm in this department. But after the Hamburg meeting, the conversation has shifted from being about ultimatums to agreeing rules.
Talk of returning Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States that were shut down under the Obama presidency did not come to anything. But the two parties did agree to speed up the appointments of new ambassadors, who could address issues such as this one.
Of course, all these agreements fall short of the major deal with Russia discussed after Trump’s victory. But they showed that it was not merely a perfunctory meeting, as many had conceived of it before the summit.
The problem with a major deal between Putin and Trump continues to be that they have nothing of equal value to trade. There are many things Russia wants from the United States: lifting of economic sanctions; unofficial recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea and resumption of international business operations there; resolution of the Ukraine conflict, including federalization of Ukraine; treating Russia as an equal partner independently fighting the war against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East rather than just as a potential member of the Western coalition. In the long run, Russia wants the United States to refrain from interfering in its domestic affairs and would also like to play a greater role on the international stage.
But what can Moscow offer in return? So far, it would be hard to find goals that the United States can’t achieve without Russia, apart from resolving the crises that Russia itself helped to create. In fact, pressure might work better than negotiations in this case.
Trump finds himself in a classical trap that haunts American pragmatists. It’s easier to get Russia to cooperate if you put less pressure on it, but putting less pressure on Russia is interpreted as giving that country what it wants. This is how the Russian leadership may see it too: less pressure means a vote of assent on Russia’s behavior toward its neighbors.
But there is a simple way out of the trap. The United States should stop automatically seeing any Russian proposal as destructive. This response does require some personal courage, just like anything unpopular with the American establishment or voters.
Paradoxically, the current situation of almost Cold War–style confrontation may help foster this response. The alternative doesn’t offer much variety: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. So now that Russia is again seen as a global adversary, the United States may want to seek some form of agreement with it.
In fact, if Russia is as powerful and dangerous as it has been portrayed in recent months, no specific agreements are necessary. Just reducing tensions in dealing with such a terrible enemy that can wreak havoc both internationally and within the United States would be considered a success. Nobody wants to live in a hostile environment—be it businesses or ordinary voters. Even without doing any specific deals, simply removing a threat is already a gift to one’s own country and the world.
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