What to expect from a Trump-Putin summit

  • Expectations about an upcoming summit between the leaders of Washington and Moscow are increasing as a date and venue are reportedly set to be announced.
  • While the meeting will be significant due to the global importance of Russia and the U.S., it may ultimately result in little more than a public relations event, experts said.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 2, 2017.
Mikhail Metzel | Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 2, 2017.

Expectations about a summit between the leaders of Washington and Moscow are increasing, but just what subjects could be on the table remains a matter of speculation.

The meeting is reportedly eyed to take place around the NATO summit in mid-July, around the time of U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, a Kremlin aide said the time and venue of the summit would be announced jointly by Moscow and Washington on Thursday.

Experts told CNBC, however, that the meeting was unlikely to produce any real, tangible outcomes.

Symbolic mood

The U.S.-North Korea summit held in Singapore in June was a largely symbolic affair and Trump is trying to “continue riding that wave,” by pushing for a meeting with Russia, Eugene Chausovsky, senior analyst at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor told CNBC.

“I think any grand strategic bargain is very unlikely, and while small scale concessions might be likely, for the most part, nothing major would come out of it,” he said.

Ultimately, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not going to come up with the solutions to pressing issues such as Ukraine and Syria in one meeting. “We can expect polished statements,” from both sides, but it is more symbolic than anything, said Mathieu Boulegue, research fellow at independent policy institute Chatham House.

That doesn't mean the meeting would purely be a public relations stunt or simply a photo opportunity, however, as a summit could serve as a springboard for the two countries to thaw their relationship.

In recent years, bilateral relations have devolved with Moscow increasingly flouting international laws, beginning with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. While Putin insisted that the incident was legal, the wider community has condemned Moscow's actions as an illegal invasion and annexation of a wholly sovereign land — responding with sanctions on the country.

Syria is another contentious topic between the two countries, with Putin supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, while the U.S. backs other factions in the country.

More recently, Putin was alleged to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which has so far resulted in an ongoing probe in the U.S. Both countries have expelled 60 diplomats in response to a March nerve agent attack against a former Kremlin spy in the U.K.

With that recent history as a backdrop, Russia will be looking to gain something from any dialogue with the U.S. That could include relief from economic sanctions imposed on the Kremlin by the U.S., Europe and others.

“The question is whether the U.S. is willing and able to give any concessions to Russia,” Chausovsky explained, adding that Trump has shown a willingness to lift the penalties against Moscow, but he has so far been hamstrung by Congress.

Low expectations

While the meeting will be significant due to the global importance of Russia and the U.S., it may ultimately result in little more than a public relations event, Chausovsky, said.

“If nothing else, it will be good for the two leaders to sit down and touch base,” Chausovsky said.

Although there are a number of issues for them to discuss, it will be challenging for the leaders to make any form of progress from the meeting, the analyst said.

“Whatever comes out of it will probably not be relevant as this is not where the hard stuff will be discussed or decided,” Boulegue said.

He added that modern summits between political leaders tend to produce few tangible results, and so there is too much importance attached to them.

Trump's agenda

The most pressing concern from a U.S. foreign policy standpoint will be to avoid miscommunication with Russia, as any misunderstanding regarding intent and policy resolutions would increase the potential for error, which could rapidly escalate between the two military powers.

But there's a difference between the U.S. relationship with Russia and the personal dynamic between Trump and Putin.

In light of the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, the meeting could serve as an opportunity for Trump to show his domestic audience that he is tough on Moscow. On the other hand, he could also seek to reassure Putin that he is still looking to strengthen the U.S. relationship with the Kremlin.

Analysts said Trump will likely look to further develop a personal relationship with Putin while the overall administration remains hawkish on Moscow, further enhancing his reputation as a bilateral dealmaker — as he sought to do with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Reassurances to Russia will send a mixed signal to everyone else, however. This is where U.S. policy stops and Trump’s personal agenda starts,” Boulegue said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he is confident that the topic of the election meddling will be addressed during the summit. He claimed that the Trump administration has been harder on Russia than many previous administrations, but said Trump will look to conduct "productive conversations" that can lead to improvements for both countries.