It’s finally happening. On Tuesday it was announced that the first bilateral meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump will take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany. Just a partial list of topics that need attention include North Korea, China, Syria, terrorism, NATO, Ukraine, sanctions, the Arctic, energy policy, an arms race and election meddling, but unfortunately this sit-down meeting will likely be just another over-hyped global encounter.
While a dialogue between the heads of the two most heavily armed nuclear nations in the world holds incredible significance, current political dynamics make it impossible to have substantive talks. Trump and Putin have domestic audiences to consider, and the personalities of the two men create their own set of obstacles. Here’s why you should lower your expectations and a few factors to consider leading up to the big event.
1. Trump is trapped
One question dominating the lead up to the meeting is who has the upper hand? Given the heat Trump is facing at home over the investigation led by Robert Mueller into election interference and general suspicion about his relationship with the Russian government, he doesn’t have a lot of room to offer concessions. Any way Trump plays it, he will be judged harshly, but especially if he’s seen as being too nice to the Russians. On top of the optics, there are also logistical challenges for Trump like the House and Senate working to limit the President’s power on sanctions by requiring congressional review.
Putin doesn’t face the same extent of pressure at home. Yes, discontent with corruption is creating more of a taste for opposition in Russia, but those protesting are a minority for now. America is seen as a legitimate threat, and Putin puts on a tough outward face, which garners widespread support. Trump's handcuffs however don't put Putin in a position to come out with any tangible results, so the Russian government isn’t making grand promises. The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, is describing the bilateral as just a first step, saying “this is the first meeting between the two presidents. That’s the main thing in this meeting. The expectation is that a working dialogue will be established.”
2. Ego, Ego, Ego
Trump and Putin both have big egos, and they like to look like winners. For Russia, the mere fact that a bilateral sit-down meeting is happening (most likely in front of cameras although the format is yet to be officially set) displays prominence on the global stage. During the last G20 when Obama was in office, the two leaders only had an informal “pull-aside” meeting.
For Trump, displaying strength when paired up with Putin will be big, so get ready for some macho body language - less in a dominating way, and more to portray equal footing. Trump can also play into the fear of terrorism to point to the global threats he is taking seriously, distracting from other issues to pledge increased cooperation and information sharing in counterterrorism.
All that said - Trump is a wild card, and even his aides are reportedly nervous about his unpredictability in this meeting. His ego is both a liability for himself, in the case he comes to the meeting overly confident and under prepared, and for Putin, considering he won't be sure which Trump will show up.
3. Agree to Disagree
There are some issues that Russia and the US will just never see eye to eye on based on each country’s national interests, essentially making them nonstarters for Trump and Putin - especially considering Trump’s lack of understanding on complex geopolitical matters.
Russia will always see NATO as a threat to its sphere of influence, and despite Trump’s waffling on Article 5 during his last trip overseas or his anti-NATO remarks during the election, he is stopping in Warsaw on his way to the G20, and the American diplomatic and military establishment have all reaffirmed the US commitment to the organization. While the US sees North Korea as an illegitimate global actor, Russia has both strategic and economic interests in engaging the hermit kingdom with which it shares a border. Many Russians don’t see the annexation of Crimea as an incursion into Ukraine’s sovereign territory, and Russia has military interests to protect in Syria, like a naval base in Tartus.
4. When All Else Fails, Blame The Media
If there's one thing Trump and Putin both love to do, it's to bash the media. This could prove helpful for Trump's predicament of whether or not to bring up 2016 election interference. Under extreme pressure to mention it, Trump could do so and show critics that he is willing to stand up to Putin, but then he would also directly contradict his own long standing position that the issue is just a media hoax. So maybe he mentions cybersecurity and election integrity as a general issue of concern without specifically pointing to 2016? Or maybe he doesn't bring it up at all. Either way, they will find some opportunity to talk some trash on the press.
5. Watch Out For China
While all eyes are on the Russian and American relationship, China and Russia are growing increasingly closer. Trade has reportedly increased by 30% just this year between the two countries, and plans for a new "Silk Road" that comes through Russia are in the works. North Korea’s ballistic missile launch happened to coincide with Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, where the Chinese and Russian leaders took the opportunity to chide both Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, warning them to “refrain from provocative actions and warlike remarks”. If the US continues to take a strong position against Russia on the global front, a Russian and Chinese alliance could comeback to bite us down the road.