US, Russia officials confirm Trump and Putin will meet at next week's G20
But there are no details on the format of the meeting, or what will be discussed
For weeks, the Kremlin and the White House have danced around the possibility of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s first face-to face meeting.
Yes, both presidents would be in Hamburg, Germany on July 7 and 8 for the G-20 meeting that brings together leaders of the major industrialized countries. Yes, a meeting was likely. No, there were no specifics.
Now it’s official: Moscow and Washington confirm the two presidents will meet at the summit, but there are no details yet on time, place or format.
Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN: “We’ve been saying for a long time that the two presidents, one way or another, will meet on the sidelines of the summit.”
Nothing has affected the presidency of Donald Trump as much as Vladimir Putin, and that significance helps to explain the sensitivity.
But Kremlin watchers in Moscow and in Washington say there’s no question Putin wants to meet Trump – and Trump, most likely, wants to meet Putin.
Trump and Putin need to talk: Disagreements over Ukraine, Syria, nuclear weapons and allegations of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election are pulling their countries to the brink of conflict.
Meetings like this are usually carefully choreographed, even if it’s a chance encounter in a hallway, let alone a sit-down, formal meeting with aides and interpreters. But neither side is giving any preview of how the two men might get together.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the Kremlin is open to any meeting format “that is convenient for Americans.”
A public relations minefield
For Trump, beset by FBI and congressional investigations into Moscow’s meddling in the presidential race and possible collusion by his election campaign, Russia is radioactive.
Trump, his campaign and Russian officials have denied any collusion took place between them.
But sitting down with Putin – even shaking his hand – could be a public relations minefield. Consider the furor over photos of Trump laughing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office in May.
Putin seems to understand Trump’s dilemma, describing the United States as locked in “political schizophrenia” that prevents Trump from improving relations.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, says what he is hearing from the Kremlin is “we understand the complexity of this situation. We’re not in a hurry, we can wait ‘til the dust settles down.”
Whatever Trump does is likely to be used against him by his domestic opposition, Kortunov believes, so the Kremlin is not looking for any meeting or agreement “that might put Trump into an even more precarious situation than the one he’s in right now.”
Yet Putin does want something from Trump. Problems with the US are festering.
One meeting won’t solve all US-Russia issues
In Syria, Russian and American pilots could find themselves in a direct clash. In Ukraine, the fighting, and dying, continues. Arms control hangs by a thread, with a few vocal politicians in both countries urging their governments to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and let the New Start deal expire.
Moscow still is fuming over then-President Barack Obama’s decision last year to expel 35 Russian diplomats who the US suspected were intelligence operatives, and the move to take control of Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York, accusing Moscow of using them for intelligence purposes.
Putin, at the time, decided not to retaliate, but the Russian Foreign Ministry is now warning it might strike back. Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokewoman Maria Zakharova told reporters: “It is best to immediately return our property, otherwise Russia has the right to come up [with a] tit-for-tat response in relation to American property in Russia. I want to confirm that the retaliatory measures are in the works.”
The Trump administration still has not re-established a wide range of communications that Obama shut off after Russia annexed Crimea.
No one in the Kremlin, however, is under any illusion that one meeting with Trump – even a high-profile one – will easily resolve these problems.
“Putin would like to hear a commitment that Trump would like to prevent further deterioration in relations, but a verbal commitment is almost the maximum that we can achieve from the Trump administration today,” Dmitry Suslov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told CNN.
The Kremlin might be reaching for a “symbolic gesture” from Trump that he is ready to normalize relations – and for Putin, Suslov says, that might be enough.
“He (Putin) can sell the meeting at home, even if it is a symbolic meeting,” Suslov says, “because, for him, it’s important to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated, that the United States sort of respects Russia, and is ready to start working with Moscow.”
Back in November, Russian citizens might have hoped that a newly elected President Trump could transform relations once in office, but that hope was dashed months ago.
“I don’t think that the public is waiting for some real breakthrough right now,” says Suslov. “They are waiting for a tipping point that would demonstrate that we hit the bottom and we are gradually getting out of this mess. And I think that nobody expects this movement to be fast or to be easy.”
‘Anything but complete failure would be a success’
Behind the scenes, there’s some hard diplomatic bargaining taking place. On June 21, Russia canceled a planned meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon at which they were expected to try to work out some key irritants between Moscow and Washington. Russia cited new sanctions Washington imposed and a lack of specifics offered by the Trump administration.
Still, Suslov says there is real preparation going on for a Putin-Trump meeting but when they meet, he thinks, the Presidents will discuss only the “contours” of an agenda, leaving any details to be revealed later by their senior officials.
“Keeping the profile low nowadays and avoiding publicity,” he said, “is the only way to do something in this very uncomfortable political environment in the United States.”
Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council also has no great expectations: “I think that anything but a clear failure would be a success.”
So, at their meeting, what about those photo ops? Will Putin and Trump smile when they shake hands? Will there be any chemistry between them?
Not likely. But with these two unpredictable leaders, anything can happen.