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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Anticipation builds ahead of Trump meeting Putin

Washington is already abuzz with anticipation as observers prepare to dissect every word and gesture for possible clues about the future and past of this contentious relationship.

Donald Trump leaves the White House on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Mr Trump's encounter this week at the G20 Summit with Vladimir Putin is highly anticipated. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Donald Trump leaves the White House on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Mr Trump's encounter this week at the G20 Summit with Vladimir Putin is highly anticipated. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Washington // Donald Trump will meet Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit on Friday against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation into the US president’s ties to Moscow.

Washington is already abuzz with anticipation as observers prepare to dissect every word and gesture for possible clues about the future and past of this contentious relationship.

Experts and former US officials agreed that the meeting on the sidelines of the summit in Hamburg is critical and will set the tone for a bilateral relationship that holds significant implications for Europe and the Middle East.

The observers said cooperation on Syria could increase over the long term, but they also warned that Mr Trump goes into his first sit-down with Mr Putin constrained by an FBI and Justice Department investigation into Russia’s actions during the US presidential campaign, and his own unwillingness to address them.

The Hamburg meeting on Friday “can set the tone, the rules of the road and the substance of the relationship,” said former US official and negotiator Dennis Ross. Mr Ross, who served in three US administrations, and is now a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stressed that “there is only one decision-maker in Russia and having Mr Putin understand the dos and don’ts of the relationship is essential.”

For Noah Rothman, a policy analyst and assistant online editor at Commentary Magazine, however, the meeting could carry significant risks for US public opinion on the Trump administration. “Polls suggest that the public increasingly believes Russian interference in the election was designed explicitly to get Donald Trump elected,” said Mr Rothman. A Fox News poll conducted in May, found that 44 per cent of Americans now believe that Russia meddled in the US election to help elect Mr Trump.

“The president may think by ignoring that fact [of Russia's meddling], he avoids inviting questions about his own legitimacy, but he's only allowing them to grow" said Mr Rothman. He cautioned that "a formal, bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in which the issue of Moscow's intervention in the 2016 election cycle is not raised will only harden the public's suspicion."

Yet, Russia and the US share “mutual interests” and “should try to manage the differences where they exist,” said Mr Ross, who wrote his dissertation on Soviet decision making in 1970. “Mr Trump should emphasize we can be a good partner but a tough adversary and not to test him.”

Mr Rothman is dubious about the US president’s own negotiating skills. “Contrary to his own myth-making, Donald Trump's 'deal-making' skills leave a lot to be desired,” he said. Mr Trump “cannot pursue his desired thaw with Moscow without a proper appreciation for what US interests are, what it hopes to achieve in a rapprochement, and what an appropriate range of concessions to Moscow might be.”

On the issues, Mr Ross does not anticipate a grand bargain but warns that “more of the same in the US-Russian relationship is not good.”

Broadly, he said, “Mr Putin took advantage of the vacuum our avoidance helped to create in Syria, and of our unwillingness to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine — effectively making it clear that we would not raise the price the Russians would pay in Ukraine.”

Still, Mr Ross contended, “I don’t see a grand bargain over Ukraine and Syria - Putin may want sanctions lifted but he thinks he has all the leverage in both issues.”

However, in Syria there could be a room for more cooperation. “The Russians are continuing the de-confliction cooperation and we now seem to have agreed upon zones of de-confliction in east and west of the Euphrates,” Mr. Ross said. That in Mr Ross’ opinion underscores Mr Putin’s pragmatism.

For the US, a major goal in Syria “would be preventing Iran from controlling the Syrian borders with Iraq, Jordan and Israel is essential for containing the Iranians and their Shia militia proxies in Syria,” Mr Ross said. This should be communicated to Mr Putin by Mr Trump said the former envoy, and that “accepting limits to the Iranian presence can produce real understandings between us— and ensure that Russia does not have to see its own involvement in Syria become more costly.”

A key concern for Mr Rothman is that the US president seems to know "a lot about Russian strategic priorities but very little about American grand strategy or those of its allies."

“Mr Trump is wandering into a gunfight unarmed and America's strategic position will almost certainly suffer as a result,” he added.