Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seem set for their second meeting this year, on the sidelines of commemorations of the end of World War One in France on 11 November. The two leaders will have a lot to talk about, though it will be the US’s stated intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that will overshadow other issues at the brief meeting. Apart from this, the two leaders may touch on other areas that are in dispute, such as US sanctions, Russian interference in US elections, and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
There is some benefit in just having the conversation. Amid the lack of high-level dialogue between Washington and Moscow over key areas of tension, a summit such as this could facilitate future substantive negotiations. The summit could serve, for example as a setup for possible meetings at the G20 in Argentina in late November, as well as in Washington sometime in 2019. If it injects momentum into other high-level discussions on key issues, such as the dialogue between Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov on peace efforts in Ukraine, that would be a positive outcome.
Unfortunately, however, previous meetings between Trump and Putin have led to very little on the substance. They have not publicly fleshed out the understandings they’ve reached, and follow-up has lacked. Overall, it is unlikely that the two presidents will walk out of this meeting with major agreements in hand. The environment isn’t where it needs to be for a breakthrough in the bilateral relationship, a problem that was on full display at the Helsinki summit in July where warms words were quickly followed by new problems in the relationship. Russia’s position on disputed issues has changed little recently. And while Trump may still seek a stronger relationship with Russia, he is not going to stray far from the position of Congress that advocates for more sanctions in the absence of conciliatory moves by Moscow.
The passing of US midterm elections just days before the meeting won’t lead lawmakers to give any less scrutiny to the outcome of the leaders’ bilateral meeting in Paris. Congress’s proposals of new sanctions legislation in the wake of the Helsinki summit made clear their opposition to the president changing policy toward Russia without consultation. The consensus on sanctions is bipartisan, and Trump is unlikely to spend much political capital trying to change it.
The impasse in US-Russia ties is therefore unlikely to break soon. The one-on-one meetings this year and next will be a source of curiosity and concern in Washington. But absent changes in the US or Russian positions, very little will change for the foreseeable future.