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Analysis: Despite High Tensions, Trump, Putin Seek To Reestablish A Broken Dialogue


A T-shirt featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg

Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, purported Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, Russian efforts to divide Europe, sanctions and countersanctions, hacking and cyberattacks.

There are plenty of issues fighting for a place on the agenda as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit down for their first face-to-face encounter on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. The two leaders have spoken by phone at least twice since Trump took office.

Yet U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster told journalists on June 29 that there was "no specific agenda" for the meeting, which would be about "whatever the president wants to talk about."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the same day that the agenda was to "seek normalization of dialogue."

A spokesman for Putin, Dmitry Peskov, said the event is "planned as a fully-fledged, 'seated' meeting" to discuss bilateral issues, rather than a brief on-the-go encounter.

Although Trump campaigned on a willingness to seek closer relations with the Kremlin, the Hamburg meeting comes at a moment when bilateral ties are at a nadir. Russia denies interfering in the election that brought Trump to the White House, but the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Moscow did just that.

"The relationship is obviously worse than it has been even at the end of the Obama administration because of the election interference," says Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia and director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. "So how do you reestablish a dialogue where you can get something done on issues where Russia really has the ability to spoil U.S. interests, be they in Syria or other places? How do you do that in an atmosphere where we obviously disagree on a vast number of issues?"

Analysts agree Trump is unlikely to press Putin on fulfilling Russia's commitments under the Minsk agreements to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine or to take the Russian president to task over Washington's allegations of election meddling.

A Ukrainian serviceman looks at portraits of lost friends in a shelter at a position near the front lines in Avdiyivka. Trump is unlikely to press Putin on fulfilling Moscow's commitments under a peace plan for eastern Ukraine, analysts say.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks at portraits of lost friends in a shelter at a position near the front lines in Avdiyivka. Trump is unlikely to press Putin on fulfilling Moscow's commitments under a peace plan for eastern Ukraine, analysts say.

The mere fact of a meeting, though, is significant for Putin, as presidential-level contacts were largely shut down in the last years of Barack Obama's presidency, Stent says.

"Unlike the Obama administration, [Trump] is willing to engage at the highest level," Stent tells RFE/RL. "That is already a plus for Putin."

The continuing controversies in the United States surrounding possible ties between Trump and his surrogates and agents of Russia could tie both presidents' hands, analysts say.

[The Russians] desperately want Trump to initiate a strategic dialogue with them to legitimize what they think they have achieved. And that is not going to happen ..."
-- Stephen Blank, American Foreign Relations Council

Several congressional committees are looking into those ties. The FBI is also investigating, something that took on greater gravity after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The Justice Department later appointed a special counsel to oversee the probe, and by all public accounts, it is continuing with all seriousness.

According to Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the tense atmosphere could be determinative.

"In the Western world, there are lots of paranoid speculations about 'a new Yalta' and whatnot," she says, referring to the 1945 Yalta conference at which the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain largely divided up Europe into spheres of influence and determined the post-World War II world order. "[Moscow] understands that nothing can be expected, and I don't think they will even attempt anything substantial. The thinking there is that the two presidents must establish personal contact and then they can take matters from there."

"That is why they don't even want to propose anything," Liik says.

Michael Flynn was fired after he misled White House officials about the extent of his interactions with Russian officials.
Michael Flynn was fired after he misled White House officials about the extent of his interactions with Russian officials.

The Russia scandals also restrict Trump, says Stephen Blank, a Russia specialist with the American Foreign Relations Council. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired after he misled White House officials about the extent of his interactions with Russian officials, and Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is also under scrutiny for similar reasons.

"[The Russians] desperately want Trump to initiate a strategic dialogue with them to legitimize what they think they have achieved," Blank tells RFE/RL. "And that is not going to happen because even if Trump wanted to do it, there would be too much opposition here in Washington, both within the administration and in Congress."

I would watch the body language and anything that can tell about the quality of the personal contact [Trump and Putin] have established. To me, that will be most interesting."
-- Kadri Liik, European Council on Foreign Relations

Russian analysts also argue that the scandals in the United States have essentially frozen bilateral ties.

"Any step toward improving relations or even limited cooperation will give rise to a new volley of accusations against the Trump administration and aggravate its already fragile situation," Dmitry Suslov, director of the Valdai Club initiative on bilateral relations, wrote in Russia In Global Affairs, a respected Moscow journal.

"Russia cannot afford to make any steps with regard to the United States, as both constructive initiatives and confrontational actions will be harmful," Suslov wrote.

U.S. analyst Blank adds that Trump is also handicapped by the "strategic incoherence" that has emerged in the first months of a presidency that has been driven to a large extent by Trump's own personality.

When it comes to outsize personality and surprising gestures, Trump may have met his match in Putin.

Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official who is now with the German Marshall Fund, told CNN he expects "an Olympian level of macho posturing between these two leaders, who both understand the importance of symbolism and the perception of being tough."

Analyst Liik agrees that in this case gestures could be more indicative than words.

"I would watch the body language and anything that can tell about the quality of the personal contact [Trump and Putin] have established," she says. "To me, that will be most interesting."

When briefing reporters at the announcement of the Hamburg meeting, McMaster improbably played down the landmark encounter.

"It won't be different from our discussions with any other country, really," he said.

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