Analysis

Sit-down With Putin Could Prove a Wake-up Call for Trump

The first face-to-face between Putin and Trump is no doubt the most hotly anticipated political meeting of the year

A couple kisses in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vilnius, Lithuania, in May 2016.
Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

MOSCOW – U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to pummel a man with a CNN logo photoshopped on his head, but can he take on a Russian with a black belt in judo?

For all of Trump’s bluster and bravado, including the decision to tweet a video of himself wrestling just days before a major overseas trip, his Friday sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin could prove a wake-up call for the American leader.

The first face-to-face between Trump and Putin is no doubt the most hotly anticipated political meeting of the year, and it will have ramifications for both of their countries, and most likely the rest of the world.

They are set to meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, and will talk for an hour, Putin’s schedule shows. Their meeting comes as ties between the erstwhile Cold War foes are at their lowest point in decades, compounded by Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. election, which saw Trump to victory. The Kremlin has said it is hoping the meeting will establish a much-needed working dialogue between the two men, in relatively neutral comments that dampened any expectations for major breakthroughs.

On Friday morning, Trump tweeted that he's looking forward to the meeting, saying that there is "much to discuss."

utin, who has ruled Russia for 17 years, is clearly the more geopolitically savvy of the two. The former KGB spy is extremely wily, and he plays a long game. If this were a round of cards, Putin would be holding the better hand. 

The two leaders have a slew of issues to discuss, and Russia seems to have an advantage in most of them, with the exception of the economic sanctions slapped on Moscow by the U.S. and Europe over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. The meeting itself is unusual, and its format is indicative of just how fraught U.S.-Russian relations are: Putin met with Trump’s three predecessors in large bilateral summits.

In Warsaw on Wednesday, Trump poured praise on Poland for meeting its financial obligations to NATO. He also criticized Russia over its involvement in the crises in Syria and Ukraine, although he did so without mentioning Putin by name. Trump called on Russia to “join the community of responsible nations,” using his strongest terms yet for the Kremlin.

Trump’s decision to badmouth Russia a day before his high-stakes meeting with Putin is odd brinkmanship, and will only irritate the Russian leader: of all the countries in Europe, Poland is arguably the most anti-Russian. It will allow Putin to be more aggressive with Trump.

“Trump was hostile and condescending to Russia, the only country in the world that actually likes him,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Journal, published by George Washington University. “Putin doesn’t want Trump to fail, but he’ll give him a hard time, he’s a much better negotiator,” she told Haaretz.

Putin is still riding high from a successful visit from his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping earlier this week. The Chinese premier told Russian media that ties between the two nations were “at their best in history.” Dressed identically in black suits, white shirt and a red tie, Putin bestowed Xi with a heavy golden medal around his neck to honor their countries’ “strategic relationship.” The trip concluded with deals worth $10 billion.

Trump may have tried to impress Xi at his Mar-a-Lago Florida estate in April, boasting of the fact he had just ordered a strike on eastern Afghanistan while eating a slice of chocolate cake, but tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to soar over North Korea.

Pyongyang will no doubt be top of Putin and Trump’s list at the Friday meeting. North Korea test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, escalating its nuclear standoff with Washington. Putin and Xi chose to join forces against North Korea, calling for a freeze in missile tests and an end to U.S. and South Korean military drills. With Xi on his side, Putin will be able to breezily begin the meeting with Trump.

They will also talk about Syria, where Russia has been militarily propping up the regime of Bashar Assad. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the UN that Assad’s fate lay in Putin’s hands, and that the Pentagon’s role would be limited to fighting Islamic State in the country.

Jointly battling global terrorism is also on their list, and while Trump mentioned Ukraine when he was in Poland, it is unlikely any serious discussion will take place. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the brief nature of the meeting may not allow for a “full discussion” of the causes behind the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which sees little signs of a peaceful solution despite the brokering of a cease-fire. Tillerson will head to Ukraine after the G20, however, a stark message to Putin that Ukraine will not be easily forgotten by the new U.S. leadership.

Despite the abysmal state of relations – not helped a bill passed by the Senate last month that would place a new round of sanctions on Russia for its role in the election hacking – Russia is banking on Putin developing a personal relationship with Trump, as he has done with many world leaders, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Xi. Earlier this week in central Moscow, Russian sculptor Alexander Burganov presented his large white statue of Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev in a small ceremony, in a nostalgic bid for closer ties between the two sides.

Friday’s sit-down, despite its brevity and location, is already looking better than Putin’s G20 meeting with Barack Obama almost a year ago. After the two men met on the sidelines of that summit in China, Obama described the talk, which focused primarily on the situation in Syria, as “blunt,” saying there were “gaps in trust.” Putin left the meeting with a downcast expression. Fast forward to now, and he has been given free rein in Syria and solidified Moscow’s alliance with Beijing, becoming a formidable player against the tide of American influence.

What a difference a year can make.