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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

G20 summit: Trump and Putin break the one-hour rule as they talk and talk during first meeting

U.S. President and Russian leader seemingly have much to discuss as they chat for two hours and 16 minutes in their first face-to-face

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg
President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg

In the history of face-to-face meetings between presidents of the United States and Russia, the heads of two mighty states with hugely differing views of the world, there were hard acts to follow.

But few had been as keenly awaited as the encounter of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

It seems the media and the public were not the only ones anticipating their first meeting. It would appear the pair had much to discuss, for talk they did.

They broke the one-hour rule for most meetings between G20 leaders, with observers noting that the two presidents chatted for two hours and 16 minutes.

Ostensibly on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, the symbolism of the meeting in truth eclipsed even the anti-capitalist riots raging around the city and dominated the gathering of world leaders.

The ice, and observers have detected bucketloads of it, was broken early.

Arriving for the start of the two-day summit, the pair mustered tight smiles and a firm handshake, with Mr Trump simultaneously patting Mr Putin’s forearm, as they faced each another for the first time.

In the case of the American president, it was a rare sign of enthusiasm at the start of a day on which he visibly had an awful lot on his mind.

When German Chanceller Angela Merkel asked delegates to turn to face the press for photos in the conference room, it took a maternally sharp tap on the shoulder from Britain’s prime minister Theresa May to persuade him to oblige.

Mr Putin, on the other hand, is vastly experienced on the world stage and was caught by the cameras in animated conversation with Mrs Merkel and others.

When the meeting came, photographs taken during a brief break showed the two presidents in a mutually attentive pose, Mr Trump edging slightly forward in his chair to listen to his counterpart.

“It’s an honour to be with you,” he told Mr Putin, who replied in similarly friendly terms, through an interpreter: “I am delighted to meet you personally.”

Both were said to be anxious to repair relations that have cooled since Mr Putin openly favoured Mr Trump’s bid for the presidency. According to US intelligence officials, he rather less openly directed a cyber campaign designed to influence the outcome, though Mr Trump remains ambiguous on the subject.

The publicly captured pleasantries were perhaps as good as could be expected just one day after Mr Trump, while visiting Poland, had accused Russia of de-stabilising Ukraine and elsewhere.

Aware that any sign of weakness would expose him to domestic taunts of being a Kremlin stooge - Hillary Clinton called him “Putin’s puppet” as they vied for election to the White House last year – Mr Trump took to social media, his preferred means of communication, before the meeting.

"I look forward to all meetings today with world leaders, including my meeting with Vladimir Putin. Much to discuss," he tweeted. "I will represent our country well and fight for its interests!"

Later, as they posed for photographs, Mr Trump said he and Mr Putin had been “discussing many things and I think it’s going well”.

It was a classic display of Mr Trump using a lot of words, sometimes a little clumsily, without an inclination to give away detail. “We’ve had some very, very good talks. We’re going to have a talk now and obviously that will continue.

“We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned.”

The Russian president said they had already spoken by telephone but that this was never enough. Through a translator, he described their meeting as an important bilateral occasion. Reporters’ questions were ignored as they retreated into further private discussion.

With so much to divide them, from glaring disagreement on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine to Mr Trump’s isolation on global warming, the fact that the meeting happened was probably as important as their exchanges.

Russian state media had suggested it was impossible to expect progress beyond the two men getting to know each other and agreeing to meet again. American newspapers critical of Mr Trump had urged him to pull no punches on Ukraine or meddling in US elections.

“Trump prides himself on plain speaking and a disregard for ‘political correctness’,” said an editorial in the the Los Angeles Times. “He should put those qualities to good use when he sits down with Vladimir Putin.”

In the event, they did agree on two matters, according to the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: a ceasefire in southwestern Syria to start on Sunday and talks on ways of easing the Ukraine crisis.

Mr Lavrov described the presidential tête-à-tête as having been conducted in a "constructive" atmosphere. A US official would visit Russia for consultations on Ukraine, he added.

The catalogue of past US-Russian presidential meetings reveals a mixture of success and failure. When Franklin D Eisenhower and Joseph Stalin met in Tehran in 1943, along with Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, they were allied in the fight against Nazi Germany.

John F Kennedy complained of being “savaged’ by Nikita Kruschev at their frosty meeting in 1961. The competing powers were embroiled in the Cold War and it showed; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who met in 1987 and got on well, were credited with doing much to end it.

The eyes of much of the world were on Friday’s meeting between the present-day incumbents of the White House and Kremlin. They are likely to keep watching for substance to follow a businesslike but outwardly respectful start to their relationship.