WASHINGTON/MOSCOW – Donald Trump’s encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin is raising concern among veteran American diplomats and analysts about a mismatch between a U.S. president new to global affairs and a wily former Soviet spymaster experienced in the long game of strategy and statecraft.
Their highly anticipated meeting this week at the Group of 20 summit promises to set the tone for the next four years of U.S.-Russia relations. Putin — who has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999 — has used his first face-to-face meetings with prior presidents to try to gain the upper hand.
A range of global issues hangs in the balance, including continuing sanctions against Russia, checking Putin’s expansionist policies in Ukraine, halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, managing frictions over Syria and Iran, and preventing Russian interference in U.S. and European elections.
Any meeting between the two will highlight their very different approaches to personal diplomacy. Putin has shown himself to be a skillful, focused tactician who carefully prepares and is not easily distracted from his goals. Trump is known to shun preparation and instead go with his gut, placing great faith in what he believes to be an ability to read the person sitting across from him. In the case of Putin, who is trained in deception, this could be difficult to do — especially if the Russian leader tries to disarm Trump with praise.
Putin is “professionally prepared to try to manipulate people,” said William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under former President George W. Bush and now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He will come well-equipped, and it’s important that we do that, too.”
The White House confirmed Tuesday the meeting is set for Friday afternoon and will be a “normal bilateral meeting,” without commenting further. The two leaders are expected to cover a range of issues in the meeting, which is expected to last about 30 minutes. Trump departed Washington on Wednesday for Warsaw, where he will meet with eastern European nations that seek to thwart Russia’s use of its energy exports as leverage against them.
Trump hasn’t ruled out raising concerns about cybersecurity and Russian election meddling, which have increased tension in the relationship, according to a U.S. official familiar with the preparations.
The U.S. views hacking and meddling both defensively in terms of what the U.S. is doing to protect itself, and offensively in terms of whether and how the U.S. should retaliate to prevent future interference, the official said. Trump wouldn’t detail those considerations in the bilateral meeting, the official added.
Fiona Hill, the senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, will join him in Hamburg, according to a second White House official. Hill has written a book about Putin and is considered one of the West’s foremost experts on the Russian leader.
No specific agenda
Both sides played down expectations of concrete achievements, portraying the meeting mostly as a chance for the two leaders to take the measure of each other. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said in a June 29 briefing the U.S. was approaching the meeting with “no specific agenda” while a Russian official said the leaders will focus on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the fight against terrorism and Russian requests that the U.S. return diplomatic property President Barack Obama seized in retaliation for election meddling.
For Putin, the meeting represents an effort to get relations with the U.S. back on track after fallout from the 2016 U.S. presidential election stymied progress with Trump’s team and fueled anti-Russia sentiment among Americans and members of Congress.
“I’m counting on Putin’s enormous experience in international contacts and building personal relationships with world leaders, which is something that he has always been successful in,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
Trump may also get some advice from Putin about how to stand up to officials and bureaucrats who try to rein in his impulses and ideas, a theme that the Russian president has warmed to in recent weeks. Speaking to a small group of reporters in St. Petersburg last month, Putin said that “specialists and analysts” will always tell leaders that difficult things can’t be done.
“But to say, ‘No, I don’t agree, that’s wrong, I will do it differently’ — you need to have great internal courage,” Putin said.
From Russians’ perspective, expectations are low but the meeting must go forward, said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. “Anything short of a complete failure would be regarded as success because for the Russian side it’s important to show to the domestic constituency, but also to the outside world, that we’ve hit a tipping point, we’ve reached the bottom” and can begin moving back toward a “more stable” relationship, Kortunov said.
Trump has been hobbled at home by investigations into Russian election interference, ties between Russia and Trump campaign associates and his firing of FBI Director James Comey. The U.S. has yet to hand back over to Russia the two diplomatic compounds taken by the Obama administration after the election. Congress also is pushing legislation to bolster sanctions against Russia despite Trump’s opposition.
On paper, an American president holds more cards heading into a meeting with Russia. The U.S. has the larger economy and military, and more allies. But Putin is a veteran of geopolitics with a wealth of experience handling his global counterparts. Bush looked in Putin’s eyes and thought he saw a “sense of his soul.” Obama dismissed Putin as a bored, slouching kid in the back of the classroom. Both were wrong.
“I’m very worried that the United States could be out-gamed,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Trump “seems susceptible to praise and flattery, and Putin seems to very much understand our president’s psychology.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s early optimism about resetting relations with other world leaders has run up against realpolitik. After holding back on trade tariffs against China in the belief that President Xi Jinping would crack down on North Korea in a way he hadn’t for Obama, Trump has in recent weeks publicly expressed disappointment in Xi and concluded it was time to threaten more financial pressure. Trump was charmed by King Salman of Saudi Arabia only to find their bond used as Saudi leverage against Qatar.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, dismissed the risk of Trump getting played, saying, “Obama, Bush, Clinton all got it wrong. So you can’t possibly do any worse. Putin’s a bad guy. We know Putin’s game now. We know exactly what he’s up to.”
Kortunov said Putin probably can’t offer much to Trump in terms of concessions, but there could be some opportunities as long as the U.S. has flexibility and understands that talks are a two-way street. Regarding Syria, he said Assad is “not a sacred cow” for Russia but Putin wants the U.S. to take a more balanced approach to Iran. On North Korea, Russia wants the U.S. to avoid unilateral actions, particularly military ones, that could lead to a conflict.
Putin’s government understands that “Russia remains toxic and definitely it will be used against President Trump by his political opponents back at home,” Kortunov said. “Any progress is likely to be very slow and very selective.”
Yet how Trump handles Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election will shape perceptions of the two leaders’ relationship in the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. president has yet to campaign publicly for an aggressive federal response to Russian election interference, sensitive to any notion it could undercut the perceived legitimacy of his win.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, cast Trump’s handling of the issue in the meeting as a test of his mettle.
“The president needs to confront Putin on the Russian intervention in our elections, and we will not accept it in any way if he just sweeps it under the rug,” Schiff said. “I’m afraid the message Putin will take away is that he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to him.”
Russian efforts to manipulate elections are also a major concern throughout Europe, and governments there want Trump to make clear to Putin that interference anywhere is unacceptable, said one Western European official.
But the most Putin and Trump may be able to agree on is an agenda for the two countries to pursue in coming months and a follow-up meeting, perhaps on the margins of a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders in November, said Thomas Graham, a former senior White House aide under Bush.
This first meeting should be short with a plan for future meetings, Nunes said.
“You’d be wasting your time to sit there and have Putin lecture you for four hours,” he said. “I don’t think Trump’s going to sit there and drink vodka with him. The president needs to put our most important issues on the table.”