At G20, a 'Good Start' to Future U.S.-Russia Talks

At G20, a 'Good Start' to Future U.S.-Russia Talks
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President Trump has never been coy about what he wanted from Russia and from President Vladimir Putin: relations with the United States that are substantively better than they were under President Obama.

By any metrics in the early months of his administration, the president did not get his wish. Ties with Russia ebbed to a post-Cold-War low point, in part because of global skepticism about Trump’s inexplicably rosy embrace of Russia during his presidential campaign.

Friday, during the two leaders’ first face-to-face meeting, the pleasantries and handshakes between Trump and Putin bloomed into a substantive discussion about Russia’s election interference, a U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire in Syria that is to begin on Sunday, and an appraisal of Bashar al-Assad’s limited future as president in light of a civil war that nudged Russia and the United States to back opposite sides.

The two leaders also talked about the hazards of North Korea’s nuclear program, according to the top diplomats from both countries.

Agreements were few, but the “chemistry” was pronounced good, and the conversation went long.

The meeting in Hamburg during the G20 summit consumed an extensive two hours and 16 minutes, most of it focused on Syria. The discussion, which included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and two translators, was described as productive, although, as expected, accounts from each country about what was said by Trump and Putin differed in key respects.

President George W. Bush, President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discovered in the months after their respective initial meetings with the former KGB agent that their soulful personal confidences, tutorials about global leadership, and gimmicks about resets and new starts altered little during a persistently fraught relationship.

With Putin, it’s never the first meeting or the early phone calls that set a mood. He has a record of publicly exploiting opportunities to appear to offer Western leaders some of what they seek, only to take assertive actions in the opposite direction later on.

“Putin sees geopolitics as a zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone has to be losing,” Clinton wrote in “Hard Choices,” her book about her years as secretary of state.

What interests Putin in the United States is not the personal chemistry and camaraderie he might forge with its various leaders, but rather how the United States and its policies can be altered or undercut to support his nationalist ambitions and his demands that the West acknowledge Russia’s global influence. 

“Putin is a master at pressing his geopolitical advantage when he senses complacency in the West,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized last year.

U.S. intelligence agencies determined last fall that Putin and forces at his disposal interfered with the 2016 presidential election in an effort to help Trump win, believing the New York reality television celebrity would be more accommodating to Russia than his Democratic opponent, whom Putin despised.

Trump remains conflicted about Russia’s meddling. He worries that acknowledging Russia’s misdeeds undercuts his victory. And he and some of his former campaign officials are ensnared in executive and legislative branch investigations to determine if campaign collusion with Russia took place. To date there is no evidence of collaboration, and Trump has denied such involvement.

For these reasons, the president’s decision to reprimand Russia on Friday for its election interference by pointing out that Congress backs sanctions as punishment was in its own way seismic.

The president was loath to curdle the mood by dwelling too long on the election controversy, but under heavy pressure at home, Trump raised Russia’s election tactics as a problem for both countries. Putin denied Russian government culpability. And depending on whom you believe, Trump accepted Russia’s denial (Lavrov’s version) or persisted in pressing Russia to cease and desist (Tillerson’s version).

Weeks ago in the Oval Office, Trump jovially boasted to Lavrov and former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he fired former FBI Director James Comey, who warned Congress that Russia interfered in the U.S. election and would do it again. Trump confided to his visitors that he believed Comey was “crazy, a real nut job.” At that May meeting, Trump expressed relief -- prematurely as it turned out. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” he said.

At an impasse in Hamburg over U.S. intelligence (evidence that Trump soft-peddled on Thursday during a brief news conference in Warsaw), he and Putin opted to dive for some diplo-cover. Russia has been fingered for cyber attacks and election interference in Ukraine, Europe, and elsewhere, and the United States is not alone in calling on the Russians to end government-sanctioned and illegal hacking, misinformation dissemination on the Web, and thefts and manipulation of private data.

Tillerson told reporters after the meeting, “We've agreed to continue engagement and discussion around how… we secure a commitment that [says] the Russian government has no intention of, and will not, interfere in our affairs in the future, nor the affairs of others, and how do we create a framework in which we have some capability to judge what is happening in the cyber world, and who to hold accountable.”

“This is obviously an issue that's broader than just U.S.-Russia,” he added.

The two leaders appeared to make more assertive strides on shared worries about the Islamic state and other extremists operating in the Middle East, and the destabilizing and endless civil war in Syria. While Russia backs Assad and the U.S. backs Syrian rebels, exasperation with the Damascus dictator, his use of chemical weapons, and the exodus of millions of refugees across borders prompted a new stab at a cease-fire in southwest Syria. It is to begin Sunday, Tillerson said.

“This is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” he told reporters. 

However, enforcement of the regional cease-fire, which was brokered by Russia, the United States and Jordan, remains a subject of continuing talks for perhaps another week until an agreement is complete, the secretary added.

Russia and the United States continue to differ about Assad’s role as Syria’s leader. Tillerson did not advocate how Assad would cede power, but he said the United States reasserted its view to Putin that Assad must exit, one way or another. 

“How Assad leaves is yet to be determined, but our view is that somewhere in that political process there will be a transition away from the Assad family,” the secretary said.

Russia maintains some business ties with North Korea, even as it supports a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang’s rapid strides toward building a missile-delivered nuclear weapon that can reach Asia and the West have eclipsed that policy, according to experts. They argue the international question is not “if,” but “what now?”

Tillerson, who has met with Putin many times as Exxon Mobil’s former chief executive, said there was no agreement with Russia over the mounting risks in North Korea that Trump’s national security advisers have said the president “will not tolerate.” Putin is not persuaded about “the urgency that we see,” the secretary said, adding that China’s posture has been “a bit uneven.” 

The president’s unsuccessful efforts to date to enlist China’s help to constrain North Korea do not signal that he’s giving up his “peaceful pressure campaign,” Tillerson said. “It is going to require some level of patience,” he added.

Trump is not known for boundless patience, and during his presidential campaign, he castigated Obama and Clinton for what he viewed as dithering and weakness. But as his discussion with Putin demonstrated, the power of first meetings in any “uneven” business relationship is to look for paths toward shared goals.

Trump and Putin did not schedule a next encounter, but the G20 “was a good start,” the secretary said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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