HAMBURG — President Trump finally sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday, and though the square knot-shaped logos decorating this German port city say this is the G-20, the U.S.-Russian summit on the sidelines is the meeting that has the world holding its breath.
Syria, Ukraine and the war on terror will no doubt come out when the two presidents hold their first face-to-face encounter, a 35-minute chat set for Friday afternoon against the backdrop of antiglobalist protests. But those issues are the undercard to the very dynamics of the meeting between a U.S. president facing an investigation that his campaign colluded with Russia and the Kremlin leader accused of overseeing a hacking and disinformation effort on Trump’s behalf.
Trump on Thursday once again brushed off the notion that Russia meddled on his behalf in the 2016 election, which would seem to play into one of the Kremlin’s main objectives. Any signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington can put aside past differences and forge a new relationship is a victory for Putin.
The Kremlin has also said that Putin will be looking for Trump to promise that the United States will hand back two compounds that the previous administration seized in late December in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hacking and disinformation campaign.
The Trump administration has already indicated it might return those compounds, which the Obama administration said were being used to gather intelligence. But Trump is facing bipartisan opposition at home not to lift sanctions against what many in Washington see as an adversary intent on weakening democratic institutions and diminishing U.S. global leadership.
“The return of these two facilities to Russia while the Kremlin refuses to address its influence campaign against the United States would embolden President Vladimir Putin and invite a dangerous escalation in the Kremlin’s destabilizing actions against democracies worldwide,” U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Trump Thursday.
The Senate recently voted 97-2 in favor of a Russian sanctions amendment to the Iran sanctions bill that “would require strict congressional review of any decision to overturn or lift existing policies on Russia, including the return of these two dachas, and would impose new sanctions to deter Russian aggression against the U.S. and its allies.”
Trump gave mixed signals on the eve of the summit, urging Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran,” in a speech in Poland. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed that criticism Thursday, saying “We disagree with this approach.”
But Trump also said that anyone could have hacked the U.S. election, saying “nobody really knows,” and questioning U.S. intelligence agencies’ affirmation of Russia’s involvement because they were wrong about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
That both of these statements align with Putin’s own position on the election hacking creates another interesting look for the U.S. president, who once famously wanted Putin to be his “new best friend.”
More recently, Trump caused a stir when he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the White House and shared intelligence on the so-called Islamic State extremist group provided to the U.S. by Israel.
There’s also the sense expressed by Russian observers that Putin, the seasoned leader with a clear objective, notoriously well-prepared and ever the operative, will have a notable advantage over a neophyte politician who has so far led the free world in fitful jerks and stops that have left even America’s closest allies confused.
And while Peskov this week warned against expecting anything more than a get-to-know-you meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week floated a proposal that would expand of U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria.
Peskov said Putin would raise Russia’s concerns that Ukraine is violating the Minsk peace accords, which call for a cease-fire in the three-year-old war with pro-Russian separatists. U.S. sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea were broadened to punish Moscow for backing the separatists militarily, which Putin has denied. Ukraine said a recently captured a soldier it said was working for the Russian military is further proof.
Putin is also expected to pressure Trump to back a de-escalation plan for the Korean Peninsula that would have North Korea halt its ballistic missile program and the United States and South Korea call off their large-scale missile drills.
Above all, Putin is hoping to forge a relationship that will open the way for dealmaking later on, if and when domestic pressure on Trump over Russian meddling abates, even if it means putting up with Trump’s mixed signals.
Russian policymakers expect Trump “to demonstrate a certain public toughness with Putin for his domestic critics, and they can live with this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “Provided that in private Trump makes it clear he wants to close the page on prior disagreements and start rebuilding the relationship without making it conditional on Russia’s dramatic and immediate reversal of its policies in Ukraine and Syria.”