Kremlin: We, um, really want that meeting with Trump

Donald Trump suggested yesterday that he might snub Vladimir Putin over the seizure of ships and sailors traversing the Kerch Strait, and the Kremlin is none too pleased about it. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump slapped back at Russian “aggression” against Ukraine as he awaits a “full report” on the seizure due last night. One immediate potential consequence could be the cancellation of a G-20 sideline meeting with Putin later this week, which would be a diplomatic embarrassment for Moscow … at the least:

President Trump threatened Tuesday to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a global summit later this week because of Russia’s maritime clash with Ukraine, saying, “I don’t like that aggression.”

Russia captured three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews in the Black Sea on Sunday, an act that drew condemnation from the West and led to Ukraine preparing to impose martial law in 10 of the country’s 27 regions.

Asked during an interview Monday with The Washington Post whether he thinks Putin was within his rights to seize the Ukrainian ships, Trump said he was considering canceling his bilateral meeting with Putin scheduled for later this week.

“I am getting a report on that tonight and that will determine what happens at the meeting,” Trump said. “I’m getting a full report on that tonight. That will be very determinative. Maybe I won’t have the meeting. Maybe I won’t even have the meeting. We’re going to see, depending on what comes out tonight.”

This morning, the Kremlin put on a full-court press to keep the meeting on track.In fact, Putin aide Yuri Ushakov insisted this morning that the US needs the meeting just as much as Russia does. Ushakov even expressed a willingness to add Ukraine to the topic list, if the US requests it through proper channels:

The meeting in Buenos Aires will be held on Dec. 1 and “is equally necessary for both sides,” Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters Wednesday in Moscow. Officials from the two presidential administrations prepared the meeting in the usual way and Russia expects the U.S. to “communicate to us through appropriate channels and not through the media” if there are additional issues to consider, he said. …

Russia expects the talks to focus on bilateral relations and strategic stability, including the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Ushakov said. “It’s very important to discuss together the options for an updated system of ensuring international security,” he said.

The two leaders may also discuss the dispute with Ukraine as well as other international security issues including Iran, Syria and the Korean Peninsula, he said.

That wouldn’t be Moscow’s first choice, however. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made that clear earlier today too, telling reporters that Trump’s support for Ukraine “saddens me greatly.” Rather than interfere with Russia-Ukraine relations, Lavrov suggested that the US should act as mediator between Kyiv and the rebels in the Donbass, which is … also Russia-Ukraine relations. Come on, man.

Why should Moscow care whether Trump meets with Putin at the G-20 at all? For one thing, their last meeting with Trump worked out pretty well for Putin. At the end of the Stinky in Helsinki,  Trump declared more trust in Putin than in US intelligence and hinted that was true about American allies, too. Trump had to undo the damage in a press conference and a couple of post-summit statements after getting pilloried by both parties and the media, including Fox News. It took a few days before it became clear that Trump hadn’t agreed to expose former ambassador Michael McFaul to Russian interrogation. The Russians must have looooved that outcome, which is why they didn’t wait long to offer to host the next meeting in Moscow, an offer Trump wisely declined.

Right now Moscow could use a diplomatic win, as the West has aligned itself in opposition to their moves on Ukraine yet again. Even Turkey, which has shifted away from Europe towards Moscow’s orbit over the last few years, has expressed its concerns over Putin’s declaration of the Kerch Strait as a Russian-controlled passage. They need a toehold to break up the unity of the West before the next round of sanctions have a chance to bite, and Trump’s their best bet for that opening. If he’s not going to even sit down with them, that’s a potential easy win taken off the table. The only way it could be worse is if Trump sends Mike Pence or Nikki Haley to meet with them instead.

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