Nearly eight months after his parliament toasted the electoral victory of Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin will finally have his first face-to-face with his American counterpart Friday, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
But the optimism over President Trump that brought out the bubbly on the floor of the State Duma on Nov. 9 has long fizzled. The president-elect who was praised in Moscow for his seeming willingness to reconsider U.S. policies abhorrent to Russia turned out to be a president — embattled by an investigation into possible collusion with the Kremlin during the campaign — who has changed nothing.
From Moscow’s point of view, since Trump took office, the relationship has gone from abysmal to worse, amid growing tensions over the increasingly assertive role of the U.S. military in Syria.
Heading into Friday’s meeting, Moscow has dismal hopes of any marked improvement.
“For the foreseeable future, the most important item by far on the U.S.-Russia relations agenda will be avoiding direct collision, which might lead to war,” was the dire assessment of Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The most deliverable item on Putin’s agenda will be the Kremlin’s demand that Washington return two Russian diplomatic compounds shuttered in retaliation for Moscow’s election meddling. Putin decided not to respond after President Barack Obama ordered the compounds seized and 35 diplomats expelled late last year, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that “patience on the Russian side is running out.”
No one in Moscow expects any progress anytime soon on recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the lifting of U.S. sanctions, the U.S. abandonment of regime change in Syria, the acknowledgment of Russia’s “sphere of influence” in Ukraine or a reduction of support for the NATO military alliance.
Even in the optimistic days following the election, the Kremlin expressed doubts that years of mistrust could be overcome right away, and Moscow has been genuinely discouraged by the tough talk on Syria and Ukraine from Trump’s senior policy advisers.
Moscow observers believe that even if Trump wanted to make progress on these issues, his political situation at home would make it impossible.
“The subject of Russia has become toxic for Trump,” said Yuri Rogoulev, a specialist in U.S. history at Moscow State University. “Whatever he does, whatever he says about Russia, good or bad, it will be used against him.”
The Kremlin has played down expectations accordingly. Yury Ushakov, Putin’s adviser on international affairs, said Tuesday that for “this upcoming first meeting, personal contact between the two presidents is therefore so important.”
And that is where Russian policymakers are hoping for a breakthrough. They are counting on Friday’s meeting to allow Putin, ever the operative, to create a personal relationship that can be built on in the future, when the U.S. president might have a freer hand to make deals.
“They view this as the prerequisite for the necessary turnaround, and they see Trump as an easy target for manipulation,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent, Moscow-based foreign policy analyst. “So this time around it will be Putin who will get a sense of Trump’s soul.”
A senior Russian diplomat said Tuesday that Putin expects to discuss the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the fight against terrorism, nuclear disarmament, and other bilateral issues.
“At least we presume that the American side will be prepared for such a dialogue,” said the diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Russian news agencies reported.
But Moscow might be counting on Trump to come unprepared.
“They follow his tweets very closely; it’s a unique window into his mind,” Frolov said. “They understand Trump is not versed in details of policy and so far has set no discernible guidelines on Russia policy to his lieutenants, which is an opening for Putin to try to influence his thinking.”
Russia has generally been alarmed by Trump’s foreign policy, which Moscow sees as unilateralist, impulsive and dangerous. Russian military analysts were openly discussing the possibility of a hot war in its far east in April, when a U.S. carrier group was reported to be heading toward North Korea, and Russian officials have twice responded to U.S. military actions in Syria by threatening to pull out of an agreement to avoid conflicts in the country’s crowded airspace.
Candidate Trump once hinted that he might reduce U.S. support for NATO. Instead, the Western alliance has been reinforcing its eastern borders against what it considers Russia’s pressure on its neighbors, and Moscow has ramped up its own military capabilities in the region.
The United States has accused Russia of developing a missile that violates the landmark 1987 treaty that limits intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s response is a version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that includes a call to establish a new offensive ground-based missile program that, while it would not violate the treaty, could be the first step in withdrawing from the deal.
At this stage of the relationship, analysts said, it is hard to imagine Putin finding something to offer Friday that Trump could afford to accept.
Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Putin could offer to expand existing U.S.-Russian agreements to avoid conflicts in the airspace over Syria and elsewhere — conflicts that could lead to accidental war.
Another possibility would be a deal “on information sharing on international terror groups, or some other token counterterrorism or counter-proliferation declaration or statement that won’t be heavy on substance.”
“Other than that, I don’t see any low-hanging fruit,” he said.