End in sight to volatile re­la­tions?

Trump and Putin’s meet­ing might help re­store talks be­tween Rus­sia and the US, writes

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

THE FIRST meet­ing be­tween Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, on the side­lines of the G20 sum­mit in Ham­burg on Fri­day, over­shad­owed the main agenda of the top-level dis­cus­sions.

Ev­ery­one fol­lowed their talks closely in the hope of get­ting a clue about how re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries, which spi­ralled into a deep cri­sis un­der Barack Obama, might de­velop.

What made their meet­ing so im­por­tant was not so much the de­tails as the fact that it might pro­vide a chance to re­store the dia­logue be­tween Rus­sia and the US af­ter a long pause when re­la­tions were at their low­est point.

Most ob­servers tended to in­ter­pret the meet­ing pos­i­tively even though Trump re­mains a hostage of the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the US, ba­si­cally tied hand and foot.

Dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, Trump spoke favourably of Putin and ex­pressed hope for bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia.

But he then faced fierce re­sis­tance from the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal elite, both among the Democrats and the Repub­li­cans. Trump’s op­po­nents and those who gen­er­ally do not want bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia claim that Moscow al­legedly in­ter­fered in the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion when anony­mous hack­ers leaked e-mails ex­pos­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee’s in­trigues. They ar­gue that this was one of the rea­sons for Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton’s de­feat.

Trump and his team have also been ac­cused of hob­nob­bing with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador to the US, al­though these were no more than reg­u­lar busi­ness con­tacts, and of nearly com­mit­ting trea­son against the US. Rus­sia had be­come the main weapon op­po­nents used against Trump well be­fore he met Putin in per­son, which forced him to make sev­eral anti-Rus­sian state­ments.

It is no won­der their meet­ing at­tracted so much at­ten­tion, with their hand­shake and ev­ery other tiny de­tail be­ing thor­oughly scru­ti­nised.

On Satur­day, Trump de­scribed his talks with Putin as “tremen­dous”. This was the first, and so far the only, com­ment of­fered by Trump.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said the meet­ing was “very con­struc­tive”, adding that the two lead­ers had “pos­i­tive chem­istry” and “con­nected very quickly”.

Putin ex­pressed hope that Rus­sian-US re­la­tions could be led out of their cri­sis. “Cer­tain pre­req­ui­sites have been cre­ated for that,” he said af­ter the talks, which had al­lowed him to es­tab­lish a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Trump.

The meet­ing lasted two hours and 15 min­utes in­stead of the 40 min­utes ini­tially sched­uled.

Putin noted that Rus­sia’s al­leged “in­ter­fer­ence” in the US elec­tions had topped the agenda of the talks.

Moscow has re­peat­edly de­nied all al­le­ga­tions claim­ing it was try­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come of elec­tions in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Krem­lin spokesper­son Dmitry Peskov has de­scribed them as “ground­less”. And yet, mys­te­ri­ous “Rus­sian hack­ers” have been per­sis­tently blamed for in­ter­fer­ing in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of nearly all Western coun­tries even though no ev­i­dence of such in­ter­fer­ence has been pre­sented.

The at­mos­phere some­times got tense dur­ing the Putin-Trump talks, The New York Times said, re­fer­ring to a White House of­fi­cial’s in­for­ma­tion re­ceived from Rex Tiller­son, who at­tended them.

He said Trump had pressed Putin on the is­sue of Rus­sia’s elec­tion med­dling, while Putin de­manded proof.

“Our po­si­tion is well known and I re­peated it: there are no rea­sons to be­lieve that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the US elec­toral process,” Putin said at a news conference in Ham­burg.

He said Trump had asked mul­ti­ple ques­tions and “I an­swered them as best I could and told him about my di­a­logues on this mat­ter with the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion and my con­ver­sa­tions with Pres­i­dent Obama. I think he took it into con­sid­er­a­tion and agreed with it,” Putin added.

He and Trump also dis­cussed other is­sues that cause ten­sion in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, in­clud­ing the con­flict in Syria and the sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine. Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov and his Amer­i­can coun­ter­part, Tiller­son, re­vealed more de­tails about the dis­cus­sion.

First, the pres­i­dents of Rus­sia and the US reached a cease­fire agree­ment in the de-es­ca­la­tion zone in the south-west of Syria (Daraa, Quneitra, and As-Suwayda gov­er­norates). The cease­fire be­came ef­fec­tive on Sun­day from noon.

Four de-es­ca­la­tion zones are be­ing cre­ated in Syria with the me­di­a­tion of Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran. Their perime­ter is ex­pected to be guarded by for­eign troops.

Lavrov said on Fri­day that the Rus­sian military po­lice would en­sure se­cu­rity in the de-es­ca­la­tion zone in the south of Syria in co-or­di­na­tion with the US and Jor­dan. Talks on the other de-es­ca­la­tion zones would con­tinue, he said.

Se­cond, Rus­sia and the US agreed to set up a bi­lat­eral com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel on Ukraine. Pre­vi­ously, Moscow and Wash­ing­ton dis­cussed the is­sue through Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial aide Vladislav Surkov and US As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Vic­to­ria Nu­land, who left the Depart­ment of State af­ter the change of ad­min­is­tra­tion.

On Fri­day, Tiller­son ap­pointed for­mer US am­bas­sador to Nato Kurt Volker as the spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Ukraine.

The third topic was cyber-se­cu­rity. The lead­ers agreed that a spe­cial joint work­ing group would ad­dress the is­sue to pre­pare a frame­work agree­ment.

Fi­nally, Putin and Trump dis­cussed the Rus­sian diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties seized by US author­i­ties. Lavrov said the sides could not re­solve the is­sue, which was one of the ma­jor ir­ri­tants in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

On De­cem­ber 29 last year, out­go­ing Pres­i­dent Obama sent 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats and their fam­i­lies out of the US and ordered the sum­mer houses of the Rus­sian diplo­matic mis­sions in New York and Wash­ing­ton to be closed and seized.

Rus­sia has not re­tal­i­ated, hop­ing to re­solve this is­sue with Trump.

If these ef­forts prove fu­tile, the Rus­sian author­i­ties might de­clare some 30 Amer­i­can diplo­mats per­sona non grata and seize Amer­i­can diplo­matic prop­erty in Moscow. This would be a rather in­op­por­tune step af­ter the meet­ing in Ham­burg, which did not pro­duce any sen­sa­tional re­sults but gave hope for im­prove­ment.

When asked whether there was a chance of lead­ing the Rus­sian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions out of their cri­sis, Putin said. “I hope so very much, and cer­tain pre­req­ui­sites have been cre­ated for that.”

“Chem­istry or not, but a work­ing con­tact with Trump has been es­tab­lished. And this is def­i­nitely a pos­i­tive thing,” said Carnegie Moscow Cen­tre Di­rec­tor Dmitri Trenin.

Al­though most ob­servers be­lieve the meet­ing be­tween Putin and Trump was gen­er­ally pos­i­tive, there is much to be done in or­der to put bi­lat­eral re­la­tions back on track. One is­sue that ap­par­ently was not raised dur­ing the meet­ing is nu­clear arms cuts, which the Rus­sian pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly de­scribed as one of the key is­sues on the Rus­sian-US agenda, as well as Nato’s east­ward en­large­ment to­wards the Rus­sian bor­der.

US Congress is sched­uled to de­bate new sanc­tions against Rus­sia shortly, and it re­mains to be seen whether Trump can re­verse this trend.

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