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Trump-Putin Sit-Down Seen As Chance To Address, Not Fix, Big Issues

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference following their summit talks in Helsinki in July 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference following their summit talks in Helsinki in July 2018.

A "good conversation" may be what U.S. President Donald Trump anticipates having when he meets Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Japan. Few others hold much hope for anything more than that, given the major issues roiling the Moscow-Washington relationship.

Kremlin foreign-policy aide Yury Ushakov said that Putin would speak with Trump one-on-one for about an hour on June 28 in Osaka, Japan, during the two-day Group of 20 (G20) summit.

The White House has not confirmed the details of such a meeting, though Trump has said he expects to meet Putin in Japan, and that "I'll have a very good conversation with him."

The meeting would be their first since a brief interaction on the sidelines of the last G20 meeting, in Buenos Aires on December 1.

Ushakov said the discussion would likely address points of contention such as Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and Afghanistan, as well as the state of major nuclear-disarmament agreements.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is set to expire in August after the United States accused Russia of noncompliance and withdrew from the deal, leading Moscow to follow suit. The New START treaty, which puts caps on offensive nuclear armaments, is due to expire in 2021 unless the two countries can agree on an extension.

North Korea's nuclear program may also feature in the talks.

'Hollowed-Out' Relations

Despite the lineup of important issues, analysts who spoke to RFE/RL are not expecting major breakthroughs given current tensions.

Relations between Washington and Moscow -- already strained by Russia's annexation of Crimea, alleged interference in U.S. elections, and subsequent Western economic sanctions -- have worsened despite the goodwill expressed by both leaders and mutual calls for cooperation after Trump won the presidency in 2016.

Washington and Moscow have added to long-standing disagreements over Ukraine and North Korea by locking horns over Venezuela and Iran -- two states whose governments are opposed by the United States and supported by Russia.

Congress, meanwhile, has continued to apply pressure on Russia by imposing new sanctions, placing a hurdle in the way of the White House and the Kremlin making good on calls for better cooperation.

"We shouldn't expect miracles out of a presidential meeting when the [U.S.-Russia] relationship as a whole is so hollowed out," says Sam Charap, a Russia analyst with the think tank Rand Corp. "The significant divides over regional conflicts and crisis don't seem to have ameliorated leading up to this [meeting]," he tells RFE/RL.

The U.S. president canceled a one-on-one meeting with Putin just days before the last G20 summit after Russia detained and jailed 24 Ukrainian sailors as they approached the Kerch Strait off the coast of Crimea, sparking outrage. Those sailors remain in jail.

Improved Transparency?

Ahead of the Osaka meeting, questions about the transparency of Trump and Putin's talks reemerged when Trump told reporters on June 26 that "what I say to him is none of your business."

Trump did not invite any advisers to join him for meetings with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018 and declined to share details of those meetings with Congress. Both situations drew alarm and outrage from policymakers and lawmakers in Washington.

"Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet there is a very strong domestic backlash after that meeting. But, in part, it's because there's a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is," says Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, and now director the Europe and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

As questions swirled earlier this week about whether Trump and Putin would even meet, Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chairman of a powerful House of Representatives committee, again demanded information from the White House about whether notes regarding previous meetings between Trump and Putin were concealed.

Trump's 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki and another the same year in Hamburg took place without the presence of aides.

Ushakov said at a briefing in Moscow on June 26 that the Osaka talks would take place "in the presence of four or five associates from both parties," according to the state news agency TASS.

Iran, Venezuela Tensions

The Trump administration has been seeking to line up global support for its hard-line policy against Iran amid spiraling relations.

Last week, he said he was within minutes of ordering a strike against Iran after the United States accused it of shooting down a U.S. military drone.

Last year, Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that Russia supported and reimposed crippling economic sanctions against Tehran.

"U.S. sanctions against Iran are not in Russia's interest at all," says Neil Gardiner, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. "Russia sees Iran as an important investment opportunity -- as a buyer of Russian weaponry."

Putin will also likely brush away calls by Trump to end support for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, says Eugene Chausovsky, a Eurasia analyst at intelligence firm Stratfor.

Trump said earlier this month that Russia informed him it had pulled most of its military personnel out of the South American country. Russian officials have denied the claim.

Russia has major energy investments in Venezuela, which is also a significant buyer of its weapons. Trump is seeking to oust Maduro.

"I don't see major progress on these issues" coming out of this week's meeting, Chausovsky says. "I think there is concerted interest from both sides to make sure these issues remain contained and don't get significantly worse."

Kurt Volker, the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, didn't give much more optimism on the prospect of discussions with Putin over Russia's role in the five-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. He told senators last week that he had not seen "any indication" from Moscow that it wants to end the conflict.

The United States' agreement to station about 1,000 more troops in Poland, Ukraine's western neighbor and ally, on a rotational basis has also raised eyebrows in Moscow ahead of the Osaka meeting.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on June 12 that the U.S.-Polish agreement was "fully in line with NATO's international commitments," and that "when the world changes, we have to adapt to make sure that we can continue to protect all allies."

Nuclear Treaties

Trump and Putin will likely devote a good portion of their talk to nuclear treaties, but are unlikely to patch differences now either, analysts said.

"This is where President Putin would like to see this [bilateral] conversation because it is where Russia is of equal strength to the United States," Conley says. "There is a massive space here to think about arms control, yet there is no process that we are aware of."

The United States announced earlier this year it intends to pull out of INF Treaty, amid mutual claims of violations.

The treaty banned the United States and Russia from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It eliminated an entire class of missiles, primarily within Europe, that were seen to be nearly impossible to defend against, and the agreement is seen as a bedrock of international strategic stability.

Washington said it had proof Moscow is testing and deploying missiles in violation of the treaty. Russia denies the accusation and has accused Washington of utilizing launch platforms that violate terms of the agreement.

Trump has said he is considering not extending the New START treaty, which caps deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550 and provides for inspections.

The U.S. president has expressed interest in working out a new multilateral arms-control treaty that also includes China.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.