Nikolas K. GVOSDEV
Last week, writing in these pages, I noted that any encounter between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that would take place at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, would have to address two critical questions if there was to be any clarity in U.S.-Russia relations. We’ve now gotten a first draft of answers.
I argued that, for the Russian side, the overarching issue is whether or not Donald Trump is calling the shots on U.S. policy. Seven days ago, the White House press operation was signaling that there would be a formal encounter between the two presidents, a scheduled meeting with a defined agenda. As the week progressed, the United States began to back away from those announcements. By the end of the week, the encounter was a far less structured event, essentially folded in around an informal stroll to a photo opportunity and brief chats in between APEC sessions—nothing at all like the meeting that took place at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July. What happened? And does it suggest that Donald Trump has a George W. Bush problem—the apparent inability to take a personal rapport with Vladimir Putin and transform it into concrete policy directives?
Because of the way the United States geographically boxes Russia in as only a “European” state, Trump’s “Russia hands” were not scheduled to join his delegation to APEC. Thus, there were concerns that any substantive meeting between Trump and Putin would occur without the U.S. officials who would be most likely to provide necessary expertise (and who would wind up implementing any results). Linked to that were fears that, if another meeting followed the Hamburg precedent (of just the two presidents and their chief diplomatic officers), Putin might convince Trump to accept a series of compromises: trading Russian support of Trump’s initiatives in return, for instance, for concrete sanctions relief and acceptance of Russian preferences for Syria and Ukraine. There had already been some advance warning of this, such as, when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Moscow last month in an historic summit, the Saudi delegation seemed to suggest that a Russia playing a more constructive and stabilizing role in the Middle East would outweigh the logic of maintaining the full raft of U.S. sanction, imposed after the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and after the 2016 elections.
But then we have Trump’s comments to the press following the Da Nang summit. Much of that coverage has focused on Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election at face value, but two other items deserve greater attention. The first is that the president, having been convinced, guided, or maneuvered into not having a formal sit-down with Putin in Vietnam, is apparently committing to a full-fledged summit meeting of the two presidents and their respective “teams” at some indefinite point in the future. If so, then how the agenda for that meeting is set, and what parameters are established for the negotiations, will be critical. The second is what role Trump himself intends to play in Russia policy. What struck me at times about his comments on Air Force One was how he seemed to view himself, as “the president,” as something separate and distinct from the executive branch as a whole. As chief executive, Trump is in charge of the U.S. intelligence community, the diplomatic corps and the military. Yet his comments seem to suggest that, at times, the government is pursuing a policy towards Russia that he personally disagrees with but somehow has little power to change.
So while we’ve gotten a first set of answers, the questions still remain unresolved. Sideline encounters at the G-20 and at APEC were not successful in changing the dynamic of the U.S.-Russia relationship. So will a direct Trump-Putin summit be a game changer? Only if those original questions can be answered definitively.