Politics

Trump-Putin summit looms but expectations low

Kathrin Hille, Henry Foy and Katrina Manson
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Russian dolls in the likeness of President Donald Trump (L) and Russia's president Vladimir Putin in a souvenir shop.
Mikhail Pochuyev | TASS | Getty Images

The White House and Kremlin are making advanced preparations for a summit between US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, set to take place in a third country next month despite rock-bottom expectations on both sides.

John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, is to flesh out the agenda for the planned meeting in talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and then with Mr. Putin himself in Moscow on Wednesday.

According to a senior Russian official, the summit will be held after Mr Trump’s visit to the UK on July 13. Contrary to earlier expectations that the leaders might meet in Austria, the two sides have reached a preliminary agreement on another host country that is logistically more convenient, the official said.

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Although a summit with Mr Trump will be an achievement for Mr Putin, with Russia chasing such a meeting for 18 months, the Kremlin is hardly triumphant.

“With Trump, it is best to stay cautious. Just it taking place will mean progress, so finding even one point of agreement would be a victory,” said the senior Russian official.

“It’s useless forcing people to talk to each other when all they will do is bark. For both sides to see that the necessity [to talk] is there, then that is progress.”

But expectations for a breakthrough in the relationship are low, in Moscow and Washington.

Bilateral ties, shattered after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the stoking of conflict in eastern Ukraine, have plunged to new depths as Washington issued its toughest sanctions yet against Russia in April over what it called Moscow’s “malign activity around the globe”, including in Ukraine, Syria, cyber space and an attempt to “subvert western democracies”.

A US investigation led by Robert Mueller, former FBI chief, is assessing whether Mr Trump’s campaign team colluded with the Russians to help secure his election, an effort the president has derided as a “witch-hunt”.

US officials doubt the president can pull off any grand bargain with Russia, but some support the prospect of an effort to ease tensions that might come from the two leaders meeting face to face.

“Trump has consistently pulled his punches and been very, very reluctant to criticise Putin,” said Andrew Weiss, former Russia director at the National Security Council. “The agenda here is I think to make a big splash rather than to push discrete parts of the Russia-US agenda forward.”

That assessment mirrors expectations in the Kremlin. “I don’t think we can reach an agreement that would be a breakthrough — it is more of a showcase,” said the senior Russian official.

While Kremlin officials expect the two leaders to discuss Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and arms control, they believe it will be impossible to hammer out even a minimum agreement in any of these areas that could be passed off as a success.

Russian officials said the two sides were more likely to pursue a co-operation deal on a less heavyweight, “secondary” issue, which could then be used as a building block to try to gradually convince them to re-engage.

“Trump may go for a faux grand bargain, in which we get vague Putin promises [about Ukraine] in return for unilateral stand-down on sanctions and/or some deliberate US blow-up of the Nato summit, or invitation to Putin to join a security arrangement to transcend Nato,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior state department official who led Russia sanctions policy.

Mr Fried suggested the other main area for potential co-operation where the leaders could claim some progress would be renewed efforts to co-ordinate military relations and limit the scale of military exercises. “That would be worthy,” he said.

But Russian and US foreign policy experts have warned the erosion of trust and degradation of the arms control architecture has driven the relationship between the two nuclear powers into a territory possibly more dangerous than in Soviet times.

“The potential for military crisis between Russia and the United States is currently being overshadowed by everything else that is happening — the future of the Iran deal, the DPRK negotiations,” said Andrei Baklitsky, a nuclear weapons expert at the Moscow-based PIR Centre. “But it’s still very real and it’s frankly very frightening.”

A disarmament expert in the Russian foreign ministry said arms control deserved to be “at the very top of the agenda” of the summit.

But Kremlin officials believe there is no chance this topic would yield political results. “We are in a downward spiral,” said the senior official. “We would need too much trust . . . and we don’t have a shred of that trust.”

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