Can Trump-Putin meet improve US-Russia ties?

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/10 18:53:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On July 7, the 12th Summit of the Group of 20 (G20) was held in Hamburg, Germany. During the G20 summit, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first bilateral meeting, a few months later than expected. Trump had proposed to ease relations with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, and had also actively prepared for a meeting with Putin after taking office. However, after the resignation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, the Trump administration has to carefully manage its relations with Russia, leading to the delay of the long-awaited Trump-Putin meeting.

Although the Trump-Putin meeting was finally held at the G20, the situation in the two countries has changed. Russia and the US have missed the best period for promoting bilateral relations. The delaying of the Trump-Putin meeting was due to some knotty problems between the two countries, such as the Syria and Ukraine crises. The Putin-Trump meeting at the G20 was more a symbolic one as the two leaders could not tackle fundamental issues.

There are reasons why Trump and Putin could not make compromises now. Trump's support rate is not rising despite his populism. Putin is in a stronger position. The Russian economy has shown signs of improvement. Russia has handled the Syria and Ukraine crises skillfully. In addition, Russia's presidential election is coming in less than a year. Therefore, it is not likely that Putin will make concessions to the US. Even though the two leaders admire each other on an individual level and have willingness to improve bilateral relations, they, taking into account national interests and the political environment, will not actively enhance the easing of the relations.

These factors fundamentally shape relations between the US and Russia. Trump coming to power offered a repositioning opportunity for bilateral relations. But the relationship is improving slowly and sluggishly. Trump and Putin have accepted the antagonism between the two countries. In this context, Russia is also adjusting its policies toward the US. Putin and his team have planned to face a long-term confrontation with the US. Once the elites in Russia and the US accept and adapt to the idea of confrontation, bilateral relations will be more difficult to adjust. It can be said that the Trump-Putin meeting has set the tone for the future bilateral relations. Confrontation between the two sides will be chronic.

Regarding the Trump-Putin meeting, there are several points worth paying close attention to. First of all, before the meeting, Trump held a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The order of the two meetings shows Trump's diplomatic priorities - allies' demands come first. This also assures Poroshenko that the US will not sacrifice the interests of Ukraine and other allies for easing relations with Russia.

On July 5, two days before the opening ceremony of the G20 summit, Russian bombers struck the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria with cruise missiles. Russia's action was intended to show its tough stance on the Syrian crisis. The Syrian peace process and fighting against IS are the most important areas of Russia-US cooperation. With its attack, Russia sent a clear message to the US that Russia can cooperate with the US, but it will stick to its position.

After the Trump-Putin meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US, Russia and Jordan reached a cease-fire and "de-escalation agreement" for southwestern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, "There will be a ceasefire in this zone from midday Damascus time on July 9." He also added that the cease-fire would be supervised by Russian military police "in coordination with the Jordanians and Americans."

The divergence between Russia and the US on the Syrian crisis is the Bashar al-Assad government. The US insists on that al-Assad should step down while Russia's position is that the issues in Syria should be decided by the Syrian people. After the battle of Aleppo, the Syrian government has taken the initiative on the battlefield. Therefore, the present negotiations are undoubtedly conducive to the al-Assad government.

Even though the two countries can carry out cooperation on the Syrian crisis, the Trump-Putin meeting has not dealt with fundamental problems. Before Russia's presidential election next year, Putin will have to take into account nationalism in his country and will not take the initiative to ease the Russia-US relationship.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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