Last Friday’s (July 7) meeting between President of the United States Donald Trump, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, was so intensely anticipated and so poorly prepared in terms of the agenda that its outcome remains broadly open to interpretation. The Kremlin judged it a success beyond expectations, particularly since it lasted 135 minutes instead of the scheduled 35 minutes (Carnegie.ru, July 7). Sensing Putin’s satisfaction, Russian commentators were eager to elaborate on the “positive chemistry” between the two presidents and to hail a “breakthrough” in bilateral relations based on trust and respect (RIA Novosti, July 7). For the Trump administration, the huge amount of media attention was in itself a major achievement, and the supposed acceptance of Putin’s reassurances that Russia had not deliberately interfered in the US elections presumably would fit a need to turn over that embarrassing page (Newsru.com, July 7). The preference for focusing on the future makes perfect political sense; but in fact, few steps in this direction were taken.
It is remarkable, for that matter, that Trump and Putin mostly ignored the broader G20 summit agenda set by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The controversial issue of climate change, which triggered violent protests in the streets of Hamburg, was clearly of no interest to both leaders. Trade was also ignored; and the difficult question of sanctions, currently being deliberated in the US Congress against Trump’s wishes, was bracketed out. Putin only briefly mentioned the sticking point of the Russian diplomatic “dachas” on US soil that are off-limits since last December (RBC, July 3). It seems the potentially hugely important problem of Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Congress is also examining, was left unaddressed, so that the future of arms control remains in limbo (Kommersant, July 7). North Korea’s arrogant nuclear behavior also apparently was not discussed. Trump probably understands that Putin has little to say on this topic, except for following the line drawn by Chinese President Xi Jinping (New Times, July 5).
One problem that had generated much tension in bilateral relations but was treated by the two leaders efficiently and productively was Syria. The ease with which the agreement on a ceasefire in the southwestern corner of the war-torn country was reached can be explained by the long and well-hidden negotiations in Amman, Jordan, where the talks had been narrowly focused on that that area of the conflict (Gazeta.ru, July 7). Washington may still harbor suspicions about the Russia-led Astana negotiation format, in which Turkey and Iran are also participants, but it seeks to ensure Moscow’s support in keeping the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime away from the key battleground around Raqqa, where the Islamic State is set to suffer a major defeat (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 8). Russia keeps using Syria as a testing ground for its new weapons systems, including recently the air-launched X-101 cruise missile, but the prospect of deploying ground forces in order to enforce ceasefires remains far from appealing in Moscow (RBC, July 6). Nonetheless, Russia feels increasingly dependent upon cooperation with Iran, which is deeply embroiled in the badly mismanaged conflict around Qatar, and Moscow cannot take a meaningful position on this regional crisis (Kommersant, July 7).
Another problem the two presidents devoted their attention to on the sidelines of the G20 summit was Ukraine. But here, no prospect for anything resembling a deal is in sight. Before coming to Hamburg, Trump visited Warsaw, Poland, and delivered to mass plaudit a speech with a strong warning to Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine,” which was duly noted in the Kremlin (Newsru.com, July 7). Putin was not particularly alarmed by that rhetoric and decided to frame the US’s appointment of Kurt Volker as a special representative for Ukraine as a positive development (RBC, July 7). Volker is not known for particular sympathy toward Russia and has vast international experience, but the Kremlin still hopes to play him against the Europeans in the deadlocked Minsk process, which has not advanced an inch since Putin’s meetings with Merkel and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron (RIA Novosti, July 8). By showing zero flexibility on its aggression in Donbas, Moscow expects to convince the West, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conveyed, to put more pressure on Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 8).
One theme Trump did not find opportune to raise was the human rights situation in Russia, despite the present existence of many disturbing issues, including the mass execution of homosexuals in Chechnya (Novaya Gazeta, July 9). On the day of the Hamburg handshake, Putin’s prime domestic political opponent, Alexei Navalny, stepped out of prison after serving a sentence linked to the protest march he organized on June 12 (Navalny.com, July 7). Navalny found his regional headquarters ransacked and hundreds of activists beaten and detained in his absence (Moscow Echo, July 8). This brutal pressure marks the start of Putin’s presidential campaign, which is yet to be announced but is certain to see the mobilization of every police and propaganda resource (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 7). Trump may not see any connection between these domestic affairs and the “Russia file” that keeps bedeviling his presidency; yet, the link is direct and strong. Navalny’s main cause is the struggle against corruption, which has severely deformed every mechanism of the Russian state (Svoboda.org, July 5). And it is exactly the export of Russian corruption that poisoned the US election last year, while cyberattacks were only a means to an end of undermining the next incoming US administration (see EDM, March 6).
Trump may claim that his meeting with Putin was “tremendous,” and Putin may have reason to think that he scored an important victory. But in fact, neither leader will likely find it beneficial or even possible to build on the beginning of the rapport they established. Trump’s receptiveness to Putin’s denials will have no impact on the multiple investigations into Russian “connections” and only strengthens the resolution of the US Congress to punish Moscow for every transgression of norms of responsible behavior. Putin, meanwhile, is almost certain to find that his efforts at cultivating a “beautiful friendship” with Trump are not helpful for resolving the practical matters of sanctions and do not fit with the habitual exploitation of anti-Americanism in the official propaganda. Putin is a believer in high-level bargaining and corruption, but he trusts even more in personal power projection. Whereas, his Western counterparts are wary of the former and quite fed up with the latter.