The meeting of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, last week (July 7), during the G20 summit (see EDM, July 10), was awaited in Russia with great hopes that it would mark the beginning of a possible détente in the strained relations between Russia and the United States. Initially, it was hyped as a success. Trump was quoted saying as much about the meeting, while Putin told the press, before leaving Hamburg, that he and his US counterpart established personal rapport and that “the real Trump is not like his TV image”—he is serious and “adequate.” According to Putin, “If our further interactions will be in the same key as yesterday’s talks, we will be able to rebuild, at least partially, our [countries’] relationship.” Putin announced an agreement to establish, together with the US and Jordan, a ceasefire or “de-escalation” zone in the south of Syria, adjacent to the Jordanian border and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Putin insisted he told Trump that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections and that there is no evidence incriminating Moscow. He further announced that Trump agreed to form a US-Russian “working group” to “jointly control cyber security.” This cyber security group, according to Putin, could guarantee “international legality and prevent foreign meddling in internal affairs” and end all “speculations” about alleged Russian election meddling (Kremlin.ru, July 8).
The Russian press hailed the G20 as a success for positioning Putin as a key world leader (Vz.ru, July 8). Data collected by the Kremlin-financed pollster VTsIOM shows that 48 percent of Russians believe the Trump-Putin Hamburg meeting will benefit Russia and will improve US-Russian relations, while only 2 percent think relations could worsen. Some 41 percent believe bilateral relations will stay the same (TASS, July 13). The VTsIOM poll was taken on July 9–10, immediately after the G20. But the initial optimism began to unravel soon thereafter.
Trump apparently backpedaled on the joint cyber security group, tweeting that, while the matter was discussed during his meeting with Putin, the US leader had not actually agreed to it and believes it to be impossible. The reaction in Moscow was angry: Putin had already gone public with the agreement, and Trump’s sudden denial made Russia’s president look stupid. Russian officials doubled down in support of their chief. First an unnamed foreign ministry official insisted, “Trump at the meeting fully endorsed the creation of a cyber security group” (Interfax, July 10). Later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov angrily rebuffed a journalist at a press conference in Brussels: “There was an agreement. I was there [in Hamburg], and I know firsthand” (Militarynews.ru, July 12).
Trump’s backtracking on the cyber security group is seen in Moscow as evidence of him bowing to public and media pressure. Trump is being described as ether untrustworthy or, perhaps, well-inclined toward Russia but too weak politically to be able to follow up on his word (Vz.ru, July 10). Moreover, the continuing saga of revelations about connections between Russia and team Trump is clearly unnerving the Kremlin, which has denied any knowledge or involvement in the meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower in New York. Trump, Jr. apparently believed Veselnitskaya possessed information incriminating Hillary Clinton. Both Trump, Jr. and Veselnitskaya insist no such information was provided or received. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian TV, “The story appeared after the [Hamburg] meeting. It is like an unending TV show” (RBC, July 12).
If the Kremlin has decided Trump is too weak or dysfunctional a leader to make and keep serious deals, the repercussions may be serious. If Trump cannot deliver and sanctions continue to pile up, Russia will lose all incentive to even pretend to act nice, choosing instead to pursue what the Kremlin believes to be Russian national interests while disregarding an allegedly paranoid and Russophobe Washington. An array of actions appears to be ready and could be implemented in the coming days.
According to a Kremlin-connected daily, Moscow has decided to expel some 30 US diplomats and take control of some US diplomatic property in Moscow as a delayed tit-for-tat move for an expulsion of Russian diplomats last December and the seizing of Russian country residences (dachas) in Maryland and Long Island. The US government’s action was meant to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 elections. The tit-for-tat was apparently postponed to allow the Trump administration to take over and undo the damage. But now Russian officials say they are tired of waiting. A meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, planned for July 17, in Washington, has been described as a last-ditch attempt to find some compromise (Interfax, July 11). Moscow has allegedly threatened to call off the Ryabkov-Shannon talks and go ahead with its reprisal, if Washington does not return the dachas immediately and unconditionally (interfax, July 13).
In another move Moscow is prepared to veto in the United Nations Security Council a draft US resolution imposing additional sanctions on North Korea for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4. The Kremlin-connected daily Izvestia quotes an unnamed Russian diplomatic source who claims Moscow has decided not to allow the imposition of any additional sanctions on Pyongyang and will push forward a joint peace plan with Beijing that involves both North Korea and the US and its allies making mutual concessions. The Russian mission to the UN refused to comment on the Izvestia publication and insisted the US draft resolution on North Korea will be assessed on its merits after official publication (Militarynews.ru, July 12). The Russian military has been insisting the North Korean test on July 4 was not of an ICBM, but of a medium-range ballistic missile. And Moscow has been blocking a condemnation of the launch by the UN Security Council, insisting the ICBM wording be removed (Militarynews.ru, July 6).
A tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats and the seizing of US property in Moscow could cause a crisis in relations. The use of a veto to block UN sanctions of North Korea could be worse: The alleged North Korean ICBM potentially threatens US territory with nuclear attack, and Washington may be forced into serious unilateral action if the international community fails to act. Already bad US-Russian relations could continue to nosedive and tensions may flare. The Kremlin seems prepared to send a strong message to Washington: Moscow is ready for any scenario.