What to watch for in Trump and Putin’s first meeting

Trump has laughed away with top Russian officials in the Oval Office.
Trump has laughed away with top Russian officials in the Oval Office.
Image: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP
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After months of flirting, fawning, and fighting, US president Donald Trump will finally meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday (July 7th).

The White House has apparently been fraught with preparation for what has become the summit’s headline event. Worried officials have taken precautions like turning the head-to-head into an official bilateral meeting (rather than a pull-aside) so they can have more control over the agenda, and writing tweet-length summaries of the main things Trump needs to know in case he doesn’t read the hefty briefing books prepared for him.

Trump sent conflicting messages to the Kremlin during his Poland trip the day before the meeting. He waffled when Russian meddling in the 2016 election came up at a press conference, saying the culprit “very well could be Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries.” (His security services have no such doubts that Moscow was behind it.) It seemed a weak attempt to play nice the day before sitting down with Putin.

However, the US president was far more strident when making a speech in front of a large crowd of Russia-wary Poles. Positing himself as leader of the West, Trump told Russia to ”join the community of responsible nations,” stop “destabilizing” Ukraine, and quit supporting “hostile regimes” like Iran and Syria.

Despite all this, even the administration’s top aides reportedly don’t know what Trump is going to bring up on the day. National security adviser H.R. McMaster tacitly admitted: “There’s no specific agenda, It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”

There will be no fears in the Kremlin about Putin being underprepared. The former KGB officer has been in power for 17 years, met four US presidents and countless European leaders, and is notorious for digging deep into his adversaries’ history to work out whether to charm, cajole, or intimidate them. This has seen him try to scare the famously canine-phobic Angela Merkel with his pet labrador, telling then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy he will destroy his career, and reminding British prime ministers of their country’s diminished place in the world, says Russia expert Ben Judah:

Given all the unpredictability, here are a few things to look out for.

Body language

Trump’s last meeting with top Russian officials was an enormous self-inflicted blow. The day after firing FBI director James Comey who was investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, he allowed just one photographer (from Russian state news agency Tass) to photograph him laughing away in the Oval Office with foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov and controversial Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The optics were not good.

White House officials remember the event “with dread,” according to the New York Times. So, one of the best signs of whether Trump was listening to his aides will be whether he can control his body language when facing the often inscrutable Russian president. Putin, on the other hand, will be highly aware of this, and could easily throw Trump to the wolves by coaxing him into a grinning photo-op—and perhaps even getting state photographers to distribute that.

Meat in the room

The White House wants a lot of aides in the room to make the meeting “less awkward,” Axios reports—a surprising tactic for a president who is sure of his charm and has often spoken fondly of Putin. The New York Times, meanwhile, suggests US officials want to be there in the hope that their presence will stop Trump going off-script.

If it turns out to be a smaller affair, that would be a good sign that Trump has overruled his aides and backed himself to manage the meeting according to his gut. When that happens, all bets are off.

What they say they discussed

We’re unlikely to get any kind of detailed official statement on the discussion (who knows what may be leaked on the other hand), but what the White House says came up will be a good indication of how strong a stance Trump ended up taking. McMaster has suggested he’ll try to straddle a line between friendly and combative, saying: “As the president has made clear, he’d like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia but he has also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.”

However, Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under Obama and a professor at Stanford, doesn’t expect either scenario to be successful: it’s “probably too optimistic” to expect a “tough conversation,” he said—while any kind of positive breakthrough is likely to be “constrain[ed]” by politics.

To get an idea of the kind of tone the conversation took, look for which of the topics decoded below shows up in the post-meeting statement.

Love-in: Fake news, leaks, the deep state

If those are the main points of discussion, you can be sure they had a very relaxed conversation—with Putin playing to all the topics Trump loves to disparage. They notably share a disregard for the free press, which Putin has almost entirely shut down at home and Trump constantly rails against.

Tough: North Korea, Syria, Ukraine

Both sides want a similar result in North Korea (stopping its push for nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles) but are suggesting rather different means of getting there: the US wants Russia and China to ramp up pressure by stopping trade with Pyongyang, while Russia and China want the US and South Korea to stop their large-scale joint military exercises. It wouldn’t be an easy conversation but taking steps to work together on this is possibly the most achievable result from the meeting.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said Trump will raise Syria as an avenue for cooperation. That’s even tricker than North Korea, though: Moscow and Washington are basically engaged in a proxy war in Syria, with their clients (for Russia, the Syrian government; for the US, the Kurds and assorted rebels) both pushing to grab as much territory left over by ISIL as possible. Trump has threatened more strikes on Assad’s troops if they use chemical weapons again, something the Kremlin vehemently opposes. A start would be to at least get the US involved in de-escalation negotiations being held in Kazakhstan, whose latest round failed yesterday.

As for Ukraine, Trump has been forced by politics to take a much stronger stance on the annexation of Crimea. If the subject is brought up by Putin (which his spokesman has suggested he might do), Trump runs a risk of being won over by Putin, the far-better-briefed arch-manipulator. If Trump takes a strong stance, there’s little chance of reconciliation but he’ll at least be showing some teeth.

Fireworks: Hacks, sanctions

White House officials have told the New York Times that he will briefly bring up Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. But any serious discussion seems unlikely; Trump is too thin-skinned about any suggestion that his election victory was unearned, while he’s waded back and forth on just how big a role he thinks Russia played in the hack. Should he actually castigate Putin on this, it would be quite a show of strength—and even if it’s just mentioned in the official statement, that will suggest the White House at least wants the world to think Trump pressed Putin on the matter.

The main bone of contention on the Russian side, Putin would dearly like the US to lift many of the sanctions placed on Moscow over the annexation of Crimea; at the same time, the US senate has just passed a bill to deepen those measures. The White House is not thought to be keen on the bill, and if Putin brings it up, it will be a keen test of how far he will try to push Trump around.