First Putin-Trump Meeting: The Exploration of a Compartmentalised Relationship

After very anticipated first Russian and US presidents' meeting, James Sherr, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) told that both sides used this opportunity to underline the importance of Moscow-Washington relationship and direct contacts between two presidents, in particular.

Several hours after the conclusion of the Trump-Putin meeting, official commentary has been conspicuously sparse. Until today, both personalities have exerted a remarkable influence in absentia. The fact that this first meeting was extended only stands to reason. It would have been ominous if it ended on schedule. It is safe to presume that no negotiations took place in two and a half hours, nor was this the intention. Instead, both sides would have regarded the exercise as an opportunity to underscore the importance of the US-Russia relationship, establish a presidential relationship, review points of contention and identify areas of potential accord.

Beyond this, the preoccupations and predicaments of the respective presidents at this particular meeting would have been decidedly different. Vladimir Putin speaks with the authority of Russia. Yet even within his own administration, Donald Trump’s position is constrained, and this was plain from his body language at the outset. He is an evident fan of Putin, a true believer in a US-Russian crusade against ISIS, an awkward convert to the view that Ukraine and Central Europe matter (though when it comes to Poland, he feels strongly, and in his address at the Sejm, he spoke from the heart). Yet the principals in his administration — Tillerson, McMaster, Mattis — are classic but pragmatic hard liners, more so than their predecessors under President Obama. Putin would have been as interested in the dynamics between Trump and Tillerson as in anything that Trump had to say. For the former, as for the Russian defence, security and diplomatic establishment in general, US-Russia discord is ‘systemic’, not the product of this president or that, and Trump’s current discomfiture only confirms in Moscow that the ‘deep state’ in America is the real state. Still, Putin would have done his best to impress upon Trump not only the consistent and ‘principled’ character of Russia’s positions but the coherence and legitimacy of its world view.

Despite the noise of many voices in the Trump administration, there is one unifying interest regarding Russia. It is not the search for a ‘grand bargain’ that many forecast some months ago. It is the exploration of a compartmentalised relationship, where there are zones of accord and cooperation and zones in which policy rests on little more than deterrence, ‘dialogue’, sanctions and containment. Discussion of the latter at this G20 meeting would have been pro forma. How much real discussion of the former took place — the perennial issues of Syria and ISIS, and the increasingly urgent issue of North Korea — will emerge in the coming days.

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