What else did anyone expect to hear? Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met for the first time as heads of state on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, with the press breathlessly reporting on handshake dynamics. The two exchanged pleasantries in public, and both characterized the meeting in positive terms:
President Trump at meeting with Russian President Putin: "We've had some very, very good talks" https://t.co/uQTp3ltTFV
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 7, 2017
The preliminaries looked pleasant enough:
With broad grins and a warm handshake, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin warmed up for their historic encounter on Friday under the shadow of U.S. outrage about Russian election-meddling and nagging questions about potential Trump campaign collusion.
Ahead of a formal, sit-down meeting, Trump and Putin were seen exchanging pleasantries as a leaders’ retreat got under way in Hamburg. A brief video clip showed Trump outstretching his hand to Putin as officials gathered around a table, then patting Putin’s elbow as both men smiled. In another clip, Trump casually patted Putin on the back as they stood side by side.
Afterward, Putin expressed his “delight” in meeting with Trump. “I hope, as you have said,” Putin added through an interpreter, “our meeting will yield positive results.” It wasn’t the only indication of positivity either:
Trump/Putin meeting running longer than scheduled. Over an hour so far.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) July 7, 2017
Getting positive results is easier said than done, at least looking from the outside. Right now, Russia and the US have few common interests, and fewer common approaches to dealing with them. For instance, just hours before this meeting took place, Russia objected to the US effort to expand sanctions on North Korea. They questioned whether the recent missile launch really involved an ICBM at all, even though Pyongyang bragged about it:
Russia objected on Thursday to a United Nations Security Council condemnation of North Korea’s latest rocket launch because the U.S.-drafted statement labeled it an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Moscow disagrees, diplomats said. …
Moscow’s resistance to defining Pyongyang’s missile launch as long-range does not augur well for Washington’s planned push to impose new U.N. sanctions on North Korea. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Wednesday that she plans to propose new measures in coming days.
Moscow has said it believes North Korea fired an intermediate range ballistic missile on Tuesday, while China has not identified the rocket launched. North Korea said it tested an ICBM and the United States said that was likely true.
“The rationale is that based on our (Ministry of Defense’s) assessment we cannot confirm that the missile can be classified as an ICBM,” Russia’s U.N. mission said in an email to its Security Council colleagues.
Even if that’s the case — and it’s far from clear that it is — North Korea’s statement makes it plain that they intend to pursue ICBM technology that will put the US at direct risk of an attack. That is an explicit violation of current UN resolutions, and current sanctions based on those resolutions haven’t deterred the Kim regime from this policy. The Russian explanation for their balk is sheer sophistry, and an indication that Putin has no real interest in working toward common ground on security issues, even when dealing with rogue regimes that use VX nerve agent for public assassinations, let alone in Syria, Iran, or the Caucasus.
It’ll take some time to hear how the meeting went from all the usual leaks, but this report from the Associated Press provides an interesting look at the body language:
President Donald Trump appeared informal and relaxed; Russian President Vladimir Putin was steely.
We’ll get readouts soon enough from both sides, which will almost certainly provide nothing but anodyne and superficial observations, but the leaks may take a little longer. Only four other people participated in the meeting: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two translators. Regardless, the New York Times predicts that the Russians will spin it as a win:
Whatever the outcome of the encounter on Friday — which will be on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting of world leaders in Hamburg, Germany, but is expected to overshadow it — the Kremlin is betting that Mr. Putin can stage-manage the event so that he comes out looking like the stronger party.
If nothing much emerges from the meeting, analysts said, the Kremlin can repeat the standard Russian line that Mr. Trump is weak, hamstrung by domestic politics.
But if Mr. Trump agrees to work with Mr. Putin despite a list of Russian transgressions beginning with the annexation of Crimea and ending with its interference in the 2016 presidential election, he will also look weak while Mr. Putin can claim that he reconstructed the relationship.
“It is a win-win situation for Putin,” said Andrei V. Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
True, but one can just as easily predict that the White House will spin it as a win for Trump, too. So what? The real issue for both is that there are no obvious areas for cooperation without surrender of significant interests on both sides, and Trump’s political situation at the moment prevents that from taking place. If Trump doesn’t get caught on an open mic bragging about having “more flexibility” to offer concessions after the next election, he’ll still be ahead of the game.
Update: Well, it must have been “good,” because it went on far longer than the scheduled 35 minutes:
12:25pET / 6:25p LOCAL: the Putin/Trump meeting has ended, roughly 2 hours 15 minutes after it began, per pool.
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) July 7, 2017
During the meeting, a number of outlets reported that the US and Russia had agreed on a cease fire in Syria. We’ll have more on that later as details emerge.