Much has been written about what President Trump might or should do in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Friday in Germany. Here are six areas to watch, along with a roundup of previous Monkey Cage coverage of related issues.
Perhaps nothing underlies current U.S.-Russian relations more than differences between the Obama and Putin administrations over what happened in Ukraine in early 2014 and the events that followed. (Well, maybe also the fact that there is a U.S. special counsel investigating aspects of U.S.-Russia relations.) These events include the #Euromaidan protests, the flight of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the outbreak of fighting in the Donbas, and crucially, Western sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea. All eyes will therefore be on Trump to see whether he signals a change in U.S. attitudes toward Crimea and the sanctions. That previously seemed likely based on his campaign rhetoric, but has been complicated by said special counsel investigation.
In previous TMC posts, Andy Akin explored what we know about Russia’s grand strategy; Aleksandar Matovski examined the differences between U.S. and Russian interests and motives that impede closer U.S.-Russia ties; and Luke Mackle examined new efforts from the U.S. Senate to sanction Russia (and why they are making U.S. allies angry).
Ostensibly, the U.S. and Russia are both involved in Syria in support of a common goal, which is to eradicate the Islamic State. In practice, both sides have been pursuing mutually antagonistic strategies when it comes to the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia supports and the U.S. opposes. Conversations related to Syria could therefore either be a place of mutual interest in which Trump and Putin find common ground, or a source of conflict. It is also worth watching whether discussion of Syria gets downgraded in response to the urgency of developments related to North Korea.
In a previous TMC post written after the U.S. bombing of Syria in April, Marc Lynch asked what would come next, which included examining Russia’s role.
3. North Korea
While not traditionally a major focus of U.S.-Russian relations, North Korea’s recent missile launch has catapulted the country to the top of everyone’s radar. While the U.S. and Russia (and China as well) share an interest in preventing North Korea from destabilizing the region, Russia and China have rebuked the Trump administration’s reaction to the most recent missile launch.
It will be important to watch, therefore, to see whether Putin and Trump can defuse some of the tension over this issue between their two countries, or whether disagreements over the proper response to North Korea end up coloring the rest of the conversation. North Korea will probably also come up in the larger G-20 summit meetings in Hamburg, which both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese President Shinzo Abe will attend.
In a previous TMC post, Danielle Lupton, Roseanne McManus and Keren Yarhi-Milo explored just how difficult it is to send signals of resolve effectively in high-stakes international disputes such as the one with North Korea.
4. Russian domestic politics
Putin recently faced another round of protests against corruption in early June. The Kremlin’s response included a show of force, the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny before the protest even started, and widely circulated images of teenage girls being arrested during the protests. In the past, this response to public protest might have drawn comments from U.S. officials; whether Trump chooses to bring this up at all might be a signal itself.
In a previous Monkey Cage symposium, a number of scholars examined the recent protests in Russia. In another post, Timothy Frye found little evidence that sanctions increased support for the Russian government among the Russian public.
5. U.S. domestic politics
Ironically, what in normal circumstances might be the most serious point of concern between the two countries may end up actually saying more about Trump’s relationship with his domestic adversaries and allies in the United States than about U.S.-Russian relations going forward. It will also be interesting to watch the readouts from the U.S. side, including the list of U.S. officials who participate in the meeting. Reports are emerging that Fiona Hill, a strong Putin critic and senior National Security Council official for Russia, might not be among them. It would be very unusual for someone in Hill’s position not to participate in such a meeting, especially given questions about Trump’s stance on Russia and problems after his May meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office.
In previous TMC posts, Jordan Tama looked at Congress’ effort to tighten sanctions and restrict Trump’s ability to lift those sanctions. Austin Carson explored why the Obama administration may have used covert retaliation as part of its response to Russian election meddling. And Stephen Tankel explained why the Lavrov-Kislyak meeting was damaging to U.S. security.
6) Trump and Putin, face to face
By now Trump is well known for his handshake — as is Emmanuel Macron — but there’s a more serious point to consider here. At the end of the day, regardless of all the larger structural factors at work, this is going to be a meeting between two human beings. Lots of things can happen in a face-to-face interaction between two people. Both presidents have a great deal at stake in their relationship with each other, and each is hoping to get something from this meeting. Most eyes will be on Trump to see whether he can handle Putin, who is famous for his preparation for such meetings. But it will be equally interesting to see if the unflappable Putin is rattled by the unpredictable Trump.
In a previous TMC post examining Trump’s first foreign trip in May, Marcus Holmes and Nicholas Wheeler explored how face-to-face diplomacy can matter in international diplomacy.
Of course, U.S.-Russia relations are not just about what happens between top leaders. In a post just before the election in November, Brittany Holom, Alyssa Haas and Yury Barmin noted that although U.S.-Russia relations were at a low point, so-called “Track II” diplomacy, which takes place more quietly among non-state actors, offers an alternative way to maintain ties and build relationships between the two countries.
Whatever the Trump-Putin meeting brings, those who hope for improved U.S.-Russia relations may need to look elsewhere for progress.