The Trump-Putin meeting is a chance for each to judge the other’s character.
A new era for US-Russian relations
In an alternate universe such as exists on reality TV shows, Donald Trump’s first formal meeting with Vladimir Putin would have gone this way: as powerful men who have admired each other from afar for years, the strong handshake would signal a new start in US-Russian relations.
There would be no bear hug such as the ultra-physical Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi forced on Mr Trump. The Russian leader sets store by formality, and anyway, bear hugs have a poor resonance in Russia, reminding people of the ageing leader Leonid Brezhnev who let the Soviet Union coast into decline.
As two leaders who have a direct connection with their people – respectively through Twitter or in four-hour phone-ins – they could not fail to forge a common bond. On the diplomatic level, the ground they were standing was solid: both dismiss the liberal world order of a “global community” defended by Barack Obama, in favour of the simple idea that the world should ordered on the basis of the national interests of major powers.
And there was a potentially huge strategic gain to be made from America and Russia burying their differences. This could wean Russia off its ever closer relationship with China, the rising power which is a clear threat to US paramountcy in the Asia-Pacific region. Richard Nixon, advised by the wily Henry Kissinger who is still active and welcomed in the Trump White House, brought China in from the cold in the 1970s in order to weaken the Soviet Union. It worked then, so why not try the reverse trick?
Alas, all this belongs today to the realm of fantasy. The Putin-Trump meeting, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, is indeed a rare opportunity to watch for signs of the chemistry – if there is any – between the two men.
But the background will be the exact opposite of what the Trump campaign had in mind. In fact, the international situation is not a field for diplomatic manoeuvring, but one that is sliding towards war over North Korea’s race to develop a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States.
What we know about their relationship is that Mr Trump, so outspoken in his other opinions, never criticises the Russian leader, for reasons which are not clear. Is he keen on doing business in Russia? Most unlikely – Russia has disappeared off foreign investors’ map. Does Mr Putin have embarrassing information about Mr Trump personally or about the funding of his businesses? Nothing is proven.
Or is it simply that he admires and aspires to be such as leader as the semi-authoritarian Mr Putin, who decides what to do and then does it, rather than a president of the United States who is hamstrung by the courts and Congress?
For his part, Mr Putin has characterised Mr Trump only as a “yarkii chelovek”, a somewhat ambiguous term that means a bright or colourful person, whose determination to improve relations he supports.
Overshadowing the meeting are the allegations that Russian hackers tried to manipulate the presidential election by revealing emails that undermined the Democratic campaign and Hillary Clinton – who is seen in Russia as a fierce anti-Kremlin hawk – at the same time as the Trump campaign was engaged in secret talks with top-level members of the Putin administration. In Washington the foreign and security establishment is mobilised to tie Mr Trump’s hands so that he cannot lift sanctions against Russia.
Even if he wanted to make a new start with Moscow, that time has passed. Mr Putin comes to Hamburg fresh from talks with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who is also attending the summit. The two leaders deepened their strategic alignment by insisting on a settlement of the North Korean crisis through “dialogue and negotiation”. Their call to defuse tensions around the missile programme is a clear indication that they hold the US responsible for the crisis.
Mr Trump may cut an isolated figure at the Hamburg summit. China and Russia have coordinated their positions. America and its allies are at odds – most notably with the host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has already said that Germany can no longer rely on the US.
Given the unfavourable outlook for the summit, the White House has focused on the optics of Mr Trump’s European tour. His first stop is Poland, where the staunchly Catholic and anti-immigration government is laying on free buses to ensure a huge crowd as he makes a speech at the monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a sacred event in Poland’s tortured history. These TV pictures may blot out the intricacies of the summit at home.
The fumbling of an administration that has yet to fill hundreds of key positions does not mean that America is out for the count. It still has the world’s largest and most effective military. Clearly, Washington is not going to use it to unseat Bashar Al Assad – secretary of state Rex Tillerson has apparently said that Russia will decide his fate – but that does not mean armed forces are never going to be used.
Indeed, Mr Trump’s very unpredictability may be his strongest suit. Mr Putin read the character of president Obama like a book: he knew that the cerebral law graduate was not going to fight Russia for supremacy in Syria, or to go to war to overturn Russia’s annexation of Crimea or military intervention in Ukraine. He also knew that Mr Obama was not going to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, for the simple reason that such an attack would prompt retaliation which would lay waste to the South Korean capital, Seoul.
But would Mr Trump stay his hand if the homeland was vulnerable? There is no certainty of that. The Trump-Putin meeting is a chance for each to judge the other’s character. Mr Putin’s goal will be to analyse how far the “colourful” character sitting beside him will go.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs. On Twitter @aphilps