Foreign policy observers in the U.S. and Russia aren’t optimistic Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will make much progress in shoring up the rocky relationship between Washington and Moscow when the two presidents meet during the G20 Summit Friday.
As the first face-to-face encounter between Trump and his Russian counterpart, the meeting is likely to set the course for bilateral relations over the next four years. But both sides caution that political circumstances prevent Trump and Putin from finding much common ground on specific questions such as U.S. sanctions policy or Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
From the Russian perspective, allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and Trump campaign aides — currently being investigated by a U.S. special counsel — limit how far Trump can go seek rapprochement.
“The subject of Russia has become toxic for Trump,” said Yuri Rogoulev, a specialist in U.S. history at Moscow State University, told the Washington Post. “Whatever he does, whatever he says about Russia, good or bad, it will be used against him.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed expectations about Friday’s meeting, saying that it is merely an opportunity for Trump and Putin to “get acquainted,” reports Reuters.
“The expectation is that a working dialogue will be established, which is vitally important for the entire world when it comes to increasing the efficiency of resolving a critical mass of conflicts,” Peskov told reporters Wednesday.
That “mass of conflicts” includes ongoing U.S. sanctions against Russia, friction over NATO expansion, the fate of the Assad regime in Syria, and multilateral efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said in a June 29 briefing that there is no “specific agenda” for Friday’s meeting, but the Kremlin expects Putin to bring up Syria and Ukraine, joint counter-terrorism efforts, and the possible return of Russian diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration as punishment for election interference.
Even if Trump is willing to entertain Putin’s overtures, U.S. foreign policy experts say, the political environment in Washington makes accommodating Moscow a risky proposition. Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine, told the New York Times that collusion allegations are a “gray cloud” over Trump’s dealings with the Russian president.
“There’s a fair amount of nervousness in the White House and at the State Department about this meeting and how they manage it because they see a lot of potential risks,” Pifer said.
An uncharacteristically unified Congress is also pressuring the Trump administration on its relationship to Moscow. The Senate recently voted 98-2 to codify U.S. sanctions against Russia and require that lawmakers review any proposal by Trump to lift them. Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said that Trump must refrain from any “unilateral concessions” to Russia during the G20 talks.
“President Trump’s eagerness to meet with Vladimir Putin under current circumstances seems ill-advised, but if the meeting occurs then the president must use this opportunity to push back against Russia’s malign activities globally,” Reed said in a statement Friday.
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