The Guardian, By Julian Borger, World Affairs Editor, 3 July 2017
Hamburg will this week play host to one of the strangest encounters in modern history, when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet on the margins of the G20 summit.
It will be their first meeting as presidents but less clear – and reflecting the unusual circumstances surrounding the event and their relationship – is whether it will be their first meeting at all. Over the past few years, Trump has variously claimed to have either met Putin and “got along great”, or to have never met him.
The power dynamics between the two leaders will be analysed around the world: one of them is widely believed to have helped engineer the election of the other, who is reportedly under investigation at home for colluding in that venture. Trump’s words and body language will be subject to immense scrutiny for signs of Putin’s leverage.
The Russian leader is also expected to push for Moscow’s take on international relations – that of the interests of leading powers taking precedence over the existing order.
For a man given to outbursts of temper and personal attacks Trump has always treated Putin with delicacy, and his admiration for his Russian counterpart has never been in question.
Putin has been far more cautious. He has called Trump “colourful”, which the American took for a compliment although the Russian word used was double-edged, with positive and negative connotations.
“You can rest assured that the Kremlin has prepared well in advance for this meeting, both with a complete analysis and dossier of Mr Trump himself as well as the goals that the Kremlin’s wishes to advance,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Putin goes into the meeting with other advantages. His control of foreign and national security policy is untrammelled, while Trump is hemmed in. Attempts to relax sanctions on Russia as a sweetener to rejuvenate the Washington-Moscow relationship have been blocked while Congress is in the process of not just intensifying the sanctions but wresting the power to lift them away from the White House.
National security council (NSC) staff have also pushed back on demands for “deliverables” to use as bargaining chips with which Trump might strike a face-to-face deal of the kind he prided himself on in his real estate and reality TV years.
Trump wants the meeting with Putin to be a formal affair, but his own advisers have resisted giving the Russian leader one of his principal goals – normalcy and acceptance following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Amid all that uncertainty, Trump’s national security adviser, Herbert Raymond McMaster, told journalists last week that the meeting would be unstructured and free ranging. “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about,” McMaster said, adding that the talks would not “be different from our discussions with any other country, really”.
The Kremlin does have an agenda, however, and despite remarks from a spokesman that the Russians would “try to fit” a Trump meeting into Putin’s very tight schedule, it sees the meeting as critical for redrawing the bilateral relationship.
“I was very surprised by General McMaster’s comments, both by what appears to be a lack of US policy preparation for this critical meeting and his comment that the US-Russian relationship is not different from that with any other country,” Conley said.
Maxim Suchkov, a member of the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council, said foreign policy experts had been invited by the foreign ministry as early as March to “brainstorm” ideas about what Moscow should be offering and asking for.
Suchkov said that Russian diplomats were thinking about the relationship in “four big baskets”, including regional issues such as Ukraine and Syria, establishing military channels of communication, and economic relations. The biggest and vaguest of the four involved the contours of the international order, and in particular “what world would the US and Russia want to live in peacefully”.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, set out in a speech on Friday what such a new order would look like: in place of the west seeking to impose “pseudo-liberal values” across the globe there would be a balancing of the national interests of major powers, he said.
In an echo of one of Trump’s campaign points, Lavrov described Nato as “unable to provide a proper response to the growing main threat of modern times, which is terrorism”. Moscow’s persistent theme is that Nato should be left to sink into redundancy while the US and Russia cooperate on counter-terrorism.
“I proceed from the premise that Mr Putin and Mr Trump understand their national interests,” Lavrov told a Moscow audience. “They want to overcome the current abnormality and start negotiating specific issues that affect bilateral relations, including business interests and the resolution of international problems.”
Henry Kissinger, who has been a guest of Trump’s at the White House, was in the room as Lavrov spoke, and the Russian foreign minister applauded him for having followed a balance-of-powers approach when he was making US foreign policy during the cold war.
Suchkov said Moscow’s immediate demand was the return of two Russian diplomatic compounds, in Maryland and New York, from where its officials were expelled by the Obama administration in December in retaliation over the Kremlin’s interference in the election campaign.
The White House led by Trump has explored handing back the sites, perhaps stripped of diplomatic immunity, but the issue is politically fraught in Washington at a time when the city is gripped by the Russia investigations.
Outside the Oval Office, however, there is entrenched opposition to any relaxation of sanctions that would imply acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in east Ukraine, a formerly covert operation which Lavrov officially acknowledged for the first time in his Moscow speech on Friday.
The US Senate has voted by 98 to 2 to strengthen sanctions on Russia. The House is expected to vote on the measures in the days following the Trump-Putin meeting. Any unilateral action by Trump in Hamburg to relax pressure on Moscow is liable to cause a backlash in Washington.
Whether or not the president and his associates are found to have directly colluded with Moscow, there is no question Trump has offered a softer, less judgmental, relationship with Russia. There is likewise little doubt Putin ordered his intelligence services to skew the election in Trump’s direction.
In Hamburg, meeting face-to-face with a US president hobbled by constraint, the Russian leader will be looking for what he can salvage from that investment.