End in sight to volatile relations?
Trump and Putin’s meeting might help restore talks between Russia and the US, writes
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.