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Putin and Trump: Out of the frying pan and into the fire

US-Russian relations have become noticeably worse since both countries’ leaders met in Hamburg this July. Nevertheless, Moscow is still seeking dialog. Observers say that one topic will likely dominate the agenda.

Will they meet or not? Until recently it remained unclear if Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would find time to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. It wasn’t until Thursday that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that a Friday meeting between the two leaders was “very probable.” The Kremlin initially reacted positively to the idea of a meeting, put forth by US President Trump about a week ago, but Russian confirmation was slow in coming. It appeared as if both sides were trying to discern if such a meeting would be worth the effort.

Push and pull

“I think President Trump is eager to meet, whereas President Putin has taken a wait and see approach to the USA,” as Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the US think tank Atlantic Council, told DW. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated steadily in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea; during last year’s US presidential elections Trump promised to improve them. Simakovsky says that Trump wants to make good on the promise but he is hemmed in by domestic scandals related to Russia.

Russian President Putin, for his part, does not seem to put much faith in the prospect of improved relations, especially considering the fact that the US president does not have the power to unilaterally lift sanctions placed on Russia by the US Congress. When Trump was elected president one year ago, champagne corks were popping in the Russian parliament. But that euphoria has since subsided and many Russian representatives seriously doubt whether Trump will even be capable of forging any agreements right now. Therefore, the Vietnam meeting will present “very little chance of producing concrete results,” according to Simakovsky. “In a way, Trump and Putin are like planets that are far away from one another, yet they have both been drawn into the same orbit and are being pulled toward one another.”

Reserved, despite spiraling sanctions

At this July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the two had their first meeting since Trump’s election, and both sides seemed pleased. Putin praised the meeting, saying that it had given the men the chance to establish a personal relationship. Still, the events that soon followed would seem to have put that fresh relationship to the test.

In late July, the US Congress passed tough new sanctions against Russia, putting it into the same category as North Korea and Iran. The sanctions were put in place in response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US elections as well as its aggressions in Ukraine. Moscow retaliated almost simultaneously, expelling more than 750 US diplomats. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move was in response to “diverse hostile actions taken by Washington.” Among those actions was a decision taken by the outgoing Obama administration, in which it expelled dozens of Russian diplomats from the USA. Initially, Russia declined to answer in kind, in order to not sour relations with the incoming Trump administration.

In late August of this year, the US answered the expulsion of its diplomats by forcing Russia to shut down its San Francisco consulate within a matter of days, causing great irritation in Moscow. Some pundits on Russian state-run media warned: “it smells like war.” Thus far, however, President Putin has resisted making any new diplomatic counter attacks, nor has he been vocally critical. The Kremlin has instead portrayed Trump as a victim of domestic political conflict. “Both sides are reserved in their rhetoric,” says Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a government-linked think tank. “Apparently the Russian side has decided against burning bridges in order to avoid further diplomatic escalation and to keep the possibility for dialog open,” Kortunov told DW.

North Korea at the top of the list

When Trump and Putin meet there will be no shortage of topics to discuss. According to Kortunov, Moscow’s wish list is comprised of a complete return to diplomatic and military dialog with Washington as well as discussions on the future of the INF Treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Russia says it is also willing to discuss global trouble spots.

When Trump announced his desire to meet Putin in Vietnam, he, too, presented three topics that he hoped to discuss: North Korea, Ukraine and Syria. Experts agree that North Korea, above all, will likely dominate the talks. Although Washington and Moscow have both condemned North Korea’s most recent nuclear tests, Russia, alongside China, has argued for a diplomatic solution to the issue, one that also makes concessions to Pyongyang. Trump, for his part, has repeatedly threatened military attacks.

There are also a great many differences when it comes to the issue of Ukraine. Recently, the international community broached the concept of deploying UN peacekeeping troops to separatist-held areas in Eastern Ukraine, which Kyiv once again declared territories occupied by Russia. Kortunov told DW that the prospects of a breakthrough were greatly lessened by statements recently given by the new US special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. The US diplomat rejected the idea of Russian participation in the peacekeeping mission as well as direct negotiations with the separatists.

Loss of trust is a major obstacle

Finally, Trump and Putin will certainly address the issue of the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US president has threatened to pull out. Here, too, the differences could hardly be greater. Putin recently traveled to Tehran to demonstrate his support for the Islamic Republic’s leadership.

US expert Simakovsky says that the biggest obstacle to improving relations between Washington and Moscow is simply a lack of trust. Nevertheless, says Andrey Kortunov, Moscow will not cease to seek dialog. Even though the likelihood of success may be minimal, he says, talks will continue.

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