When U.S. President George W. Bush recalled his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001, he famously said: “I looked the man in the eye… I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
For the next U.S. leader, Barack Obama, the first meeting with Mr. Putin started rather awkwardly. The latter was in the capacity of the prime minister, and the formal greeting was marred by confusion.
“I am aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minis-, uh, as president, but in your current role as prime minister,” Mr. Obama said in 2009.
On Friday, another head of the U.S. will have an opportunity to look Mr. Putin in the eye and try his much-advertised negotiating skills on him. Donald J. Trump is set to meet the Russian president on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
In June, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters that the American side had “no specific agenda” for the meeting. “It’s whatever the president wants to talk about,” he said.
The statement set alarm bells ringing, with the U.S. media arguing that if Mr. Trump has no agenda, Mr. Putin for sure has one.
“[Putin] is a KGB agent by training — he will read Donald Trump in a heartbeat — I tremble at the thought that the two of them could be alone in a room,” Rep. Gerry Connolly warned just days before the high-profile meeting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has already commented on Moscow’s expectations from the meeting.
“The expectation is for the establishment of a working dialogue, which is likely vital for the whole world in terms of increasing the effectiveness of solving the critical mass of conflicts and issues that are increasing day by day,” he said.
While the first meeting of the two leaders may not result in major announcements, the talks can set the tone for future negotiations.
“Right now the U.S. has most of the leverage in these seemingly one-sided negotiations, the sanctions first and foremost being a powerful instrument. Moscow has little to offer to Washington beyond cooperation on issues like Syria and Ukraine,” Assistant Professor at George Washington University David Szakonyi told The Globe Post.
The U.S., along with its allies in the West, imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its role in the Ukrainian crisis. The Trump administration has reportedly been considering easing restrictions and even came under intense scrutiny for their alleged back-channel talks with Russian officials.
On June 14, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure to expand restrictions on Russia further and limit the ability of the president to lift the sanctions.
Less than a week after the vote, the U.S. Treasury expanded anti-Russia sanctions to include 38 individuals and entities over their involvement in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. The U.S. administration’s move was announced during Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Washington, D.C. Russia called the decision “unreasonable.”
Kyle Haynes, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University, told The Globe Post the sanctions remain the largest policy-related source of tension between Moscow and Washington.
“The underlying conflict arises from the U.S. and Russia having fundamentally different views about how the international system should work. Policy concessions can’t really do much to alleviate this underlying source of tension,” he noted.
The outcome of the first meeting would largely depend on how much Mr. Trump fears a backlash from the Congress, the national security community, and the American public at large, Mr. Szakonyi said.
“To me, there is very little popular support for making concessions to Russia, even if Trump has his own reasons for pursuing this policy approach,” he said, adding that in the eyes of the U.S. and its allies, Moscow currently lacks the ability to follow through on deals.
Mr. Haynes expressed no doubt that Mr. Trump will tweet or make an off-the-cuff statement hinting at major concessions regarding sanctions relief.
“But I doubt there will be much follow through,” he said, warning that “even empty theatrics between Trump and Putin could undermine confidence in NATO and undercut the western order in a way that directly achieves Putin’s goals.”
In order to actually be implemented, major policy concessions require extensive interagency review and consultation, Mr. Haynes explained.
The State Department isn’t adequately staffed at the moment, he added. It creates an obstacle to implementing a significant change in the U.S. policy toward Russia.
“Any such shift would face stiff resistance from the Pentagon and NSC [National Security Council],” Mr. Haynes said. “Any hint of concessions to Putin would dramatically increase pressure on the House GOP [Republicans] to pass the Senate’s sanctions bill.”
Alexandre Strokanov, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture at Lyndon State College, told The Globe Post that in the first meeting the leaders of the two countries should look at ways to establish normal, productive and mutually beneficial relations.
“The first step… should be a meeting where presidents of both countries meet each other and simply share their views on some pressing issues,” he said.
He noted that it is about the time to stop “hysterical Russophobia” in the U.S. media and among the political elite that became “just ridiculous.” He advised looking at U.S.-Russian relations with a sober and pragmatic approach.
“People in both countries are sick and tired of this situation that it many ways is even worse than what we had at the time of the Cold War,” Mr. Strokanov underlined.
He urged the U.S. to return to normalization of relations with Russia, and treat Moscow as an equal partner with serious influence in the world affairs.
“We should simply begin to work,” he said.
Since the election of Mr. Putin, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama attempted to open a blank page with the Russian leader, only ending in disappointment. Observers anticipate a similar fate if Mr. Trump chooses a similar modus operandi.
Mr. Trump’s electoral victory injected a new impetus to a possibility for a thaw with Russia but with allegations of Russian collusion surrounding the Trump team, the U.S. president is facing a daunting task.
Even if both leaders display decisiveness to improve the strained ties, any meaningful reset seems a distant reality in the near future.