Experts see gains, losses for both leaders in Trump-Putin meeting

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin may have gone about as well as either leader could have expected, experts say, but it did little to silence concerns about how willing Trump is to hold Russia accountable for its transgressions against U.S. interests.

The bilateral discussion Friday between the two presidents, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, lasted two hours and 16 minutes, much longer than originally planned.

“The meeting was very constructive,” Tillerson told reporters in a briefing. “The two leaders, I would say, connected very quickly. There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. I think, again -- and I think the positive thing I observed -- and I've had many, many meetings with President Putin before -- is there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past.”

That past is complicated, to say the least. Though Trump has at times claimed they previously met, this is believed to be their first face-to-face meeting, after trading compliments during Trump’s campaign and speaking by phone four times since November. They came together at the G-20 Summit Friday under a fog of doubt surrounding Trump’s response to the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin directed efforts by Russian hackers to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to damage his opponent.

According to Boris Zilberman, deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Putin’s attentive body language in front of the media before the meeting suggested he took it very seriously.

“He is often known to slouch and look bored in meetings,” he said. “While he did look down at times during the press availability, he was sitting at the edge of the seat. This was a high-stakes meeting.”

Trump and Putin apparently had an extensive conversation about election interference, but it did not resolve the underlying tensions.

“They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson said.

Accounts of that discussion from the only other officials in the room conflict. Tillerson claimed Trump repeatedly pressed Putin on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. He said their disagreement on the issue seemed “intractable” and the leaders decided to move forward to other matters.

“The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward, and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of non-interference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process as well as those of other countries,” he said.

However, according to Lavrov, Trump accepted Putin’s denial of involvement. He also indicated that Trump downplayed the issue, telling Putin that the claims of election interference were exaggerated and unsupported by evidence.

Trump administration officials disputed Lavrov’s account, but the truth is unclear.

“Hard to read the tea leaves on this one but take anything Lavrov says with a large grain of salt,” Zilberman said.

Based on the president’s consistent efforts to cast doubt on the allegations against Russia, James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University, said Lavrov’s version is plausible.

“Trump’s been denying it all and has denied that the intelligence community has the evidence,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine him pressing a point that he himself has denied.”

According to Tillerson, Trump and Putin also discussed the conflict with North Korea, and they have the same goal even if they view the issue differently.

“Russia’s official policy is the same as ours: denuclearized Korean peninsula,” he said.

The meeting comes as President Trump faces ongoing questions from the media and the American public about Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

Asked at a news conference in Poland Thursday whether he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was responsible for hacking Democratic email accounts, Trump acknowledged that was possible but insisted other countries may have also interfered.

A new poll shows more than half of Americans are suspicious of Trump’s dealings with Putin. According to the PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 54 percent of Americans believe Trump did something either illegal or unethical with Russia. Nearly half, 47 percent, say Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign poses a major threat to future elections.

All of this has led to a hostility toward Russia that Ronald Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan and a senior researcher at the National Research University in Saint Petersburg, Russia, has not seen since the Cold War and that makes cooperation politically dicey.

“Trump is very hobbled right now because the American public is convinced that the Russians interfered in our election,” he said.

As a result, Trump walked into the sit-down with two agendas.

“One is with Putin and one is with the American establishment in a way,” Suny said.

Trump needed to show he could get along with Putin, but he also had to appear strong enough that the public in the U.S. does not think he gave in to the Russians. In that sense, he may have gotten what he wanted out of the meeting.

“The fact that President Trump brought up Russia’s cyber activities in the 2016 election is also an important marker along with his commitment to Article 5 during his speech in Poland where he also called out Russia for its destabilizing activity in Ukraine and Syria,” Zilberman said. “By taking these actions, the President is checking a number of key boxes on this trip.”

Goldgeier agreed that Trump raising the issue of Russian hacking was noteworthy, but he fears Trump’s desire to “move forward” is letting Putin off the hook for his meddling.

“What they seemed to have agreed to is, instead of holding Russia accountable, they’re going to create some kind of working group,” he said.

“We’ve agreed to continue engagement and discussion around how do we secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention of and will not interfere in our affairs in the future, nor the affairs of others, and how do we create a framework in which we have some capability to judge what is happening in the cyber world and who to hold accountable,” Tillerson explained after the meeting.

Zilberman said just seeing the photos of the two men cordially shaking hands may help soothe concerns of those around the world who look to the U.S. and Russia for leadership on security matters.

“It shows that there is a chance for de-escalation in the U.S.-Russia relationship,” he said. “What worries the world the most is when the U.S. and Russia are not speaking to each other.”

Goldgeier is less convinced of the importance of a positive relationship between the two leaders because Trump’s actual goals are unclear at this point.

“It really depends on what Trump views as America’s interests and what he wants to get from Putin,” he said.

The bilateral discussion did offer some hope for future cooperation. Tillerson highlighted a planned ceasefire in Syria negotiated by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan.

“By and large, our objectives are exactly the same,” he said. “How we get there, we each have a view. But there's a lot more commonality to that than there are differences.”

Experts agree that will be significant progress if the agreement holds, but ceasefires have been attempted before and the conflict resumed soon afterward.

“Agreements on ceasefires or other de-confliction measures are only as good as their implementation,” Zilberman said.

Russia has a history of violating international agreements and they may do so again here. Tillerson reaffirmed the U.S. belief that Syrian President Bashar Assad has to be removed from power for there to be peace, but Russia has supported Assad.

“On Syria, our common way forward is very murky,” Zilberman said. “We do not have a common language, so to speak, on how we view the different groups in Syria and what Syria might look like post-conflict.”

While Putin may put self-interest first, Suny believes this is an issue where he can be trusted because he wants to prove that working together can have positive results.

“Absolutely, if it’s in Russia’s interest and Russia wants to show the world that it has this kind of clout with the Assad regime,” he said.

Given the challenges ahead with global implications in Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere, Tillerson made the case that not working together or engaging with Putin is no longer an option, even if the election interference dispute endures.

“I think what the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how do we move forward; how do we move forward from here,” he said. “Because it’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution of that question between the two nations.”

Suny hopes this meeting demonstrates that Putin and Trump are open to dialogue and compromise.

“The world is faced with very dangerous problems now,” he said, “and the choices are, are you going to swagger and flex muscles or are you going to negotiate?... The alternative is disaster in all kinds of places.”

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