On Tuesday afternoon, after President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their third phone call in about as many months, news emerged that the two leaders would finally meet this summer. For those tracking the Trump-Putin dance, it might seem just another date in a long love affair.
The reality, however, looks far bleaker for Putin.
Consider this: After three phone calls and an infinite amount of hope for a Trump-Putin detente dashed against the rocks of American politics, all that Trump and Putin could agree on, according to the readouts provided from each side, was that the war in Syria is bad and that maybe a personal meeting this summer would be good. But even that part about the meeting, it turned out, was just in the Kremlin’s account of the presidential phone call. The White House made no mention of any agreement to meet. And even the Kremlin left room for uncertainty. After a description of “a whole range of timely questions of cooperation between the two countries on the world stage”—which, according to the Kremlin readout, were Syria, and Russia’s perennial, cynically used favorite, counterterrorism—“Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump spoke in favor of continuing contact by telephone, as well as in favor of organizing a personal meeting alongside the G20 Summit in Hamburg on July 7-8.” Which, given the White House’s silence on the meeting, sounds a lot less like a continuing bromance and a lot more like, “Call me” and “See you around.”
In Moscow, hope of Trump ushering in a new era of Russian-American harmony has evaporated, with any remnants pulverized by the 59 Tomahawks Trump fired on Syria “in lieu,” as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross phrased it, “of after-dinner entertainment.” Trump, in the view of the Russian elite, has had his hands tied by the Russia hawks on both sides of the aisle, “like Gulliver by Lilliputians,” says Andranik Migranyan, a professor of international relations in Moscow as well as an old classmate of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Said Igor Korotchenko, the editor of Russia’s National Defense Magazine, who has close ties to the Russian Defense Ministry, “We don’t like it, but we tell ourselves that the reason for the sudden change of politics is explained by his weakness inside the U.S.”
With all this pessimism, talk in Moscow, even before the Syria strikes, had been of a last-ditch attempt to rescue what could have been a beautiful friendship. “Russian officials are pushing for a meeting between Putin and Trump,” one person with knowledge of the talks told me this spring. “They don’t have to agree on everything, but they think there could be chemistry between them.” The idea was that this chemistry would reanimate Trump’s admiration of Putin and, hopefully, put Russia and the U.S. back on course. Holding such a meeting was seen, according to the source, as “urgent.” “My impression was that the one man who makes decisions in Russia wanted it to happen sooner rather than later” and that “waiting for the G20” in July “was too long, and that Putin might meet [Trump] in Germany or Slovenia”—that is on relatively neutral ground. (Despite Angela Merkel’s tough stance toward Russia, Germany is seen as a more balanced and sane adversary than what is referred to in Moscow as “the Anglo-Saxon world.”)
But it’s not necessarily evidence of desperation, as much as it is a canny understanding of Trump’s psychology. By his own admission, Trump responds well to Putin’s compliments, so perhaps if the Russian leader called Trump “colorful” in person, Trump would be moved to unilaterally lift sanctions. The idea to set up a Trump-Putin meeting in order to warm up the American president’s feelings and drive pro-Russia policy was actually quite prescient: It was discussed even before Trump’s radical reversals on China and NATO following successful personal meetings with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, respectively.
But it seems Gulliver Trump is still too tied down by the Lilliputians of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, and Putin won’t really get that early meeting he wanted. Instead, if the meeting even happens, he’ll have to wait to see the American president just like everyone else, in July, in Germany, and on the sidelines.