After a break of nearly two years, the leaders of two of the world's most powerful countries finally met on July 7. With much anticipation, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump held their first face-to-face session, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The hype surrounding the meeting was similar to that generated by the Reagan-Gorbachev summits
of the 1980s, when U.S.-Russian relations were at a similarly low level.
The Russians were cautious going into this meeting and let the White House define the type of encounter, knowing full well the pressure on Trump from Washington for his first meeting with Putin. Once a formal bilateral meeting was scheduled, the Kremlin set a fairly low bar on expectations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the goal of the brief encounter was to simply re-establish a dialogue, because Russia has not held a formal bilateral meeting with a U.S. leader in two years. The United States was cautious as well, debating public perceptions of the encounter while holding the contents of any agenda close. There was no shortage of topics to discuss: conflict in eastern Ukraine and Syria, North Korea's latest missile launch, counterterrorism and the reach of Russia's hybrid warfare strategy into the United States.
There was little room for compromise on most agenda items, though there were a few areas on which to theoretically start building a better understanding: cyber relations and Syria. During the meeting, both sides discussed the seriousness of cyberthreats
and agreed to create a framework to combat them. Moscow has long pushed for a formalization of cyber relations with the United States and has proposed a treaty system much like the arms-restriction agreements between the two countries. Such a system would be tricky, however, because cyberthreats emanate from a variety of countries and non-state actors, including rival firms, hackers and criminals. Moreover, the level of trust on cybersecurity between the two countries is limited, because each has accused the other of state hacking. But even a loose framework could help defuse tensions over the issue.
While the two men remained locked away in prolonged talks, leaks began to surface that the two sides had reached an agreement on yet another cease-fire in the southwestern region of Syria. The region was one of four de-escalation zones designed during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan
. The zone was eventually divorced from the Astana talks and became part of the U.S.-Russia negotiations. The cease-fire deal comes after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the United States is willing to consider stability operations with the Russians in Syria, including no-fly zones, cease-fire observers and deliveries of humanitarian aid. The agreement is one of the few areas on which the two can find compromise.
Ahead of the meeting, each side sent strong signals about areas of no compromise: North Korea and Ukraine. Moscow objected during the U.N. Security Council's attempt to condemn North Korea's rocket launch and blocked the council's vote on the statement. Moscow has been in lockstep with Beijing about using diplomatic pressure, and not expanded sanctions or military intervention, on North Korea. With the move, Russia also ensured that North Korea would be central in its meetings with South Korea, Japan and China, and that Moscow would be a key negotiator in the crisis. Russia has long sought to use its growing ties with North Korea as leverage
in talks with other leaders, and it is now getting that chance.
Heading into the Group of 20 summit, the United States delivered strong messages on Ukraine
. Tillerson will to head to Kiev after the summit of the world's leading rich and developing nations, probably to quell any fears coming out of the seemingly warm Putin-Trump talks. But even more telling, the State Department finally named a special representative for Ukraine negotiations, in this case, Kurt Volker. Volker has extensive experience in the Eurasian theater as former first secretary to the U.S. mission at NATO and as director of Eurasian affairs for the National Security Council. He has been privy to tense periods in U.S.-Russian relations and will be a strong match for the Russian representative, presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. The United States is not part of the Normandy Four group (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine), which is negotiating the Minsk peace settlement for eastern Ukraine, though its inclusion has been floated in the past. Berlin, France and Moscow have long been against the inclusion, and the appointment of Volker could further harden Russia's position. The continued fallout from the week's events has prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to schedule follow-up meetings, starting with Germany this next week.
As expected, the first meeting between Putin and Trump was warm on the surface, while differences in each country's position help maintain a dangerous standoff. After a break of almost two years between presidential meetings, the two sides were able to achieve a key goal of laying the groundwork for future negotiations. Now each will put a spin on their successes and failures in the talks, as they try to shape the future of U.S.-Russia relations.