Pity the knowledgeable staff responsible for preparing US President Donald Trump for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump declined to prepare an agenda for the meeting held on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. As National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster put it beforehand, ‘it’s whatever the president wants to talk about’. That was always going to be a terrible idea. The last time Trump went off-script with the Russians when he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in May, he mistakenly handed over Israeli classified intelligence. While Trump thankfully made no such blunder on this occasion, the meeting nonetheless failed to achieve much, neither ridding Trump of Russia-related controversy nor delivering major policy outcomes.
‘I’m going to get this out of the way: did you do this?’
The meeting, which was initially scheduled for 30 minutes, but in the end lasted over two hours, began awkwardly. Trump failed to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election—a fact that the relevant US intelligence agencies agree upon. Rather, he asked the Russian president for his version of events. Since Trump refused to let any senior US officials into the meeting other than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, we do not know how the conversation truly went. Tillerson characterised the discussion as ‘robust’. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of involvement and detailed responses to Trump’s queries. Indeed, the two presidents appeared to get on well in the subsequent photo-op and joked over their mutual disdain for the free press.
The Russian account is self-serving, but it fits Trump’s history of discrediting both US intelligence and media reporting on Russian election interference. Even the day before the meeting, Trump told journalists in Poland that while he thought it was Russia who hacked the 2016 election, ‘nobody really knows for sure’.
Regardless of the conversation’s content, Trump appears to think that by merely discussing the issue with Putin, it can now be put to rest. On the weekend, he tweeted: ‘I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I've already given my opinion… ’. And then: ‘… We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!’
Few in the US regard the issue as dealt with, however, or consider increased cooperation with Russia a smart idea. On Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that ‘this whole idea of moving forward without punishing Russia is undercutting his entire presidency’. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s US election interference continues, and more concrete evidence emerged this weekend of attempted collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, with the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., admitting that in June 2016 he secretly met with a Russian lawyer who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Any administration efforts to improve bilateral relations are meanwhile prevented by the US Congress’ insistence on maintaining and strengthening sanctions against Russia to hold it accountable for its US election interference and aggression in Ukraine.
In the past week, both President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have been remarkably assertive on the topic of Russia’s actions against Ukraine. Speaking in Warsaw, Trump called on Russia to ‘cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine’ and, in contrast to his previous trip to Europe, endorsed NATO’s mutual defence commitment. Hours before the Trump-Putin meeting, Tillerson named Kurt Volker, a Russia hawk and former US ambassador to NATO, as special envoy to Ukraine, charged with ensuring the 2015 Minsk accords are complied with. Tillerson went further on Sunday, declaring that sanctions would remain until Russia restored Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’, which presumably includes Crimea. In this context, Trump’s claim that he did not discuss sanctions with Putin at all in their two-hour meeting is bizarre and, if true, shows how badly an agenda was needed.
Trump briefly floated the idea of US-Russia cooperation on cyber security, but had distanced himself from that laughable notion by the end of the weekend. Trump also claimed that a key achievement of the meeting was the ceasefire announced in southwest Syria. The details are unresolved, and, like previous ceasefires in the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely to hold for long. Nonetheless, the fact than an agreement could be made at all, less than a month after Russia threatened to attack any coalition aircraft operating west of the Euphrates, hopefully indicates that the risk of direct conflict between the US and Russia in Syria has for now subsided. While the ceasefire should therefore be regarded as a positive outcome, it had been negotiated by the US, Russia and Jordan ahead of time, not by Trump and Putin. Overall, then, the meeting looks pretty unproductive.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.