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News Analysis: Beyond The Trump-Putin Handshake

While all meetings between leaders from Moscow and Washington are weighted by history, military might, and competing visions of world order, it wouldn’t be an understatement to call the July 7 meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump historic.

Bilateral relations between the two nuclear powers are without question at the lowest ebb in 30 years ago, stoking fears of Cold War-style military confrontation.

Trump’s presidency, now in its sixth month, has been hobbled in no small part because of U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia interfered in the election that brought Trump to the White House.

Putin, now in his third term, has overseen Russia’s resurgent armed forces and commands wide popularity, but the economy is struggling, the population aging, corruption endemic, and the political system is increasingly reliant on Putin’s personality.

Trump has spoken repeatedly of finding common ground with the Kremlin, which has echoes of past U.S. presidents believing a good rapport and a positive approach could do the job.

Barack Obama tried to “reset” relations with Putin, after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. George W. Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes in 2001 and said he got “a sense of his soul.”

And Bill Clinton had bonhomie with Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, propping him up -- in one case, literally -- and his presidency during the difficult 1990s.

If Trump can avoid repeating history, it will be no small achievement.

Here are five takeaways from the first meeting between the two men.

Who’s In The Room?

In the days leading up to the sit-down, U.S. pundits and Russia watchers were looking closely at who exactly would be let into the room where Putin and Trump were to meet. In the end, it was the two countries’ top diplomats -- Rex Tillerson and Sergei Lavrov -- plus translators. Left out was the White House’s Russia point person, Fiona Hill, whose presence many observers expected and whose absence deprived the U.S. side of a deep well of knowledge, language, and experience about Putin’s canniness and Russia’s internal dynamics. And while Tillerson’s experience in Russia is substantial, it has largely been as a businessman: captaining the oil giant ExxonMobil and cutting deals with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft. Lavrov’s career as foreign minister, meanwhile, spans three presidents, and his diplomatic interactions with the United States stretch back to the days of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The Handshake

Handshakes, and body language more broadly, have become an informal litmus test for observers of Trump and his interactions with world leaders. His 19-second handshake with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a missed opportunity to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand, his tug-of-war with French President Emmanuel Macron -- all were fodder for amateur psychologists trying to figure out what Trump was trying to tell his foreign counterparts.

With Putin, the handshake occurred during a photo op before their closed-door meeting, and it all had much less of the ceremony of previous events. There was an earlier, more informal one too, when the G20 leaders were gathering. A brief video clip showed Trump outstretching his hand to Putin as officials gathered around a table, then smiling as he patted Putin's elbow. Later on, Trump was seen patting Putin on the back as they stood side by side.

“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump told Putin, who responded by saying, “I’m delighted to meet you.”

“There was a very clear, positive chemistry between the two,” Tillerson told reporters later.

As for their initial handshake? It appeared to have lasted a reasonable two seconds.

Tick, Tock, Tick Tock

Originally, just 35-40 minutes had reportedly been allotted for the meeting, which was just a sideshow to the larger Group of 20 summit with leaders of major industrialized nations. But the meeting ultimately stretched to nearly 2 1/4 hours, a signal that the two men weren’t merely talking about the weather or their choice in neckties.

In comments to reporters awaiting a later meeting with Abe, Putin said he and Trump had discussed Ukraine, Syria, the fight against terrorism, and cybercrime and cyber security. But he gave no further details.

Even before the meeting ended, there were rumors of a deal on Syria, where the United States and Russia have been fighting parallel wars to defeat Islamic State militants but with very different means to that end.

Lavrov later told a news conference that the two presidents had agreed on a cease-fire that would begin in parts of Syria on July 9.

Expect more announcements in the coming days from both Moscow and Washington, not to mention strategic leaks by anonymous officials to the media in both countries.

Asked later why the meeting ran so long, Tillerson responded that "there was so much to talk about."

Read Between The Lines

As is so often the case, what is not said during meetings of such gravity is as important as what is said. Lavrov said that there was no agreement on the United States returning two Russian diplomatic compounds that had been seized in December as part of the Obama administration’s response to the alleged election interference. Russia has complained vociferously about the issue, and threatened to seize U.S. diplomatic properties in Moscow in retaliation.

Lavrov reacted neutrally to the announcement earlier in the day that a new special U.S. envoy for Ukraine had been appointed to make headway on the Minsk accords, set up to end the conflict in Ukraine. But judging by his comments, and those of Tillerson later, there wasn’t any substantive agreement on pressing the signatories to Minsk, which include Russia, Ukraine, France, and German, to push forward on the commitments laid out by the plan.

Also going unmentioned were other major points of contention between Moscow and Washington, such as the fraying regime of arms control agreements between the two, dating back to the Cold War.

Nor did the pronouncements Trump made during his visit to Poland apparently come up. In Warsaw, which he visited prior to Hamburg, he gave solid reassurance to Russia’s longtime nemesis, NATO, and criticized Russia for destabilizing some European countries. Trump also blessed the sale of a Patriot missile-defense system to the Polish military, and gave effusive praise to the country’s right-wing government, which is hostile to Russia.

The Elephant In The Room

The biggest issue facing Trump and Putin is the issue that both are denying is even an issue to begin with: the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Tillerson said the subject did come up, when Trump himself opened the meeting by raising that concern. Tillerson said the Russians -- either Putin or Lavrov -- then asked for proof of the interference.

"The president pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past,” Tillerson told reporters.

Lavrov, meanwhile, asserted that Trump heard clearly from Putin that Russia didn't interfere. And he said the two sides had agreed to set up a joint working group to address the problem of cybercrime and cybersecurity.

If history is any guide, however, this is likely to lead nowhere. The Russians and Americans have tried to cooperate in the past on cyberissues, only to see that effort break down as Russian government agencies co-opted Russian hackers for official and unofficial projects, and the United States prosecuted and extradited Russian hackers for major computer intrusions.

Moreover, the issue of Russian interference probably isn’t one that either has much vested interest in pursuing. For Trump, acknowledging Russia tried to help sway the election in his favor -- as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded -- could undermine his election victory, and potentially the legitimacy of his presidency. For Putin, recognizing that Russia attempted to influence the U.S. election would only corroborate what many experts suspect is going on in many European countries allied with Washington. And it might invite retaliation from the Americans.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.