— -- It’s being billed as one of the biggest political encounters of the year but ahead of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump’s first meeting, the Kremlin will be happy if it just passes off without too much drama.
Conscious that Trump is mired amid investigations into his presidential campaign’s possible ties to Russia and wary that intense hostility in the U.S. means a positive meeting between the two leaders could easily boomerang negatively back onto Moscow, analysts said they believed Russian officials are tamping down expectations.
“The Kremlin would like to, as they say, ‘keep a low profile’,” said Sergey Markov, an analyst in Moscow with views considered close to the Kremlin.
That will difficult. The two presidents will meet for the first time in a glare of media attention on Friday at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Both sides have confirmed it will be a full bilateral meeting, elevating what had initially had been expected to be a huddle on the summit’s side-lines.
Throughout Trump’s campaign and after his election, Russian officials and state media expressed hope a Trump presidency would improve relations with the U.S. But the intensity of the uproar around Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and the ongoing Russia investigations has further shrunk those aspirations.
“No one could imagine,” Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy aide to Putin told a conference in Moscow last week, that internal “political resistance” could “undermine to such an extent the opportunities of the administration in working out the course of foreign relations and in particular relations with Russia.”
The Kremlin is therefore approaching the meeting carefully. Russian officials have signaled detente, while hedging that if it fails the U.S. side will be to blame. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, last week told an audience Russia hoped the meeting would "make clear" the two countries' relationship and that it would be a "huge mistake" not normalize relations.
On Monday, the Kremlin released a loose agenda for the meeting, listing a broad range of areas where it said it believed Russia and the U.S. can cooperate. It was largely the Kremlin’s standard wish-list, issued also to the Obama administration. Putin’s priorities were given as expressing Russian discontent with U.S. sanctions, proposing to work together against terrorism in Syria, and improving efforts on nuclear arms control.
The statement underlined Moscow wants to cooperate with the U.S., saying it believed the two could do much and placing the blame for the current impasse on the Obama administration.
But while Trump has repeatedly suggested he would like to improve relations with Russia, his space for doing so appears severely limited. Besides the political danger of reaching out to Moscow for Trump, much of the U.S. government's apparatus is going in the other direction.
A bill with bi-partisan support has been brought to Congress that would impose tough new sanctions on Moscow over its alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and would compel White House to come to Congress before lifting sanctions against Russia. The White House has made it known it is against the bill, arguing it would tie its hands in making policy on Russia, but is worried vetoing it be awkward given the Russia-linked investigations around Trump.
Many of Trump’s top advisers, particularly his national security adviser H.R. McMaster have also been reported to be skeptical of reaching out to Russia, which American intelligence and defense agencies believe is actively seeking to weaken the U.S.
The Kremlin is well-aware of these limits on Trump's ability to restore contacts, analysts said.
“I think there is an understanding that Trump is the only person in his administration who shows some interest in improving relations with Russia while basically everyone else is against it,” said Maria Lipman, a veteran analyst and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint journal
The path to closer cooperation appears substantially blocked by Russia and U.S.’ divergent interests, that have not changed since Trump’s election. In Syria, the U.S. has been on a clashing trajectory with Russia, shooting down a warplane belonging to Moscow’s ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and launching cruise missiles at an Assad airbase in April. On sanctions, the White House has re-affirmed that they will not be lifted until Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine. Russia has made it clear it will not do so and in the agenda released before the meeting acted as though the Ukraine crisis had played no role in the U.S. decision to curtail relations.
"I doubt that there will any kind of outcome from this meeting, anything substantial. We know the constraints,” said Lipman. “And Putin of all people knows the constraints all too well.”
With potentially little concrete to agree on, Russia appears to have latched on to a more minor, possibly more achievable objective. The Kremlin statement said Putin will raise the question of the return of two Russian diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration in response to Moscow’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election.
The compounds—two sprawling country mansion-estates in Maryland and New York state—were recreational facilities for the Russian embassy but U.S. intelligence has long suspected they were used for espionage. Then-president Barack Obama ordered them confiscated when he expelled 35 Russian diplomats in December.
Russian officials have been stamping their feet harder over the compounds recently, threatening to retaliate if they are not returned. Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov on Monday warned Russia’s was “losing patience” on the issue.
It comes amid reports the White House has ordered staff to include the compounds’ return as a possible bargaining chip at the meeting with Putin. Russia’s foreign ministry has suggested retaliation will follow if the compounds are not given back, setting the stage for a new round of acrimony and potentially boxing Trump into the Kremlin’s criteria for what will count as a friendly meeting.
Many observers suggested the main significance of the meeting will most likely be in the tone it sets for the relationship during Trump’s administration, largely through the tone the two adopt afterwards.
With a new raft of sanctions in the offing and American official attitudes already intensely hostile, analysts said the Putin's main goal will be to try to keep things more or less as they are. Aware that Trump's ability to cooperate is highly constrained, the Kremlin is concerned not to make things worse, they said.
"The stronger Trump is the better the chances are for improving relations between the U.S," Markov, the pro-Kremlin analyst said. "The Kremlin would like that meeting goes off calmly, and so that Trump’s enemies cannot find in it something to undermine him."
In the U.S., some experts have warned that Trump must be on his guard against efforts by Putin to appear as his ally personally.
"Putin wants the readout of this meeting to be “we had a very good meeting,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow under Obama wrote in an op-ed advising Trump on the meeting this week. “Your objective is different. Your goal is not a friendly chat — diplomacy is not a popularity contest — but a clear statement of U.S. national security and economic objectives and an exploration of what issues the United States and Russia could pursue together.”
Lipman said she believed that the Kremlin was genuinely interested in seeking detente given the risks and economic damaged inflicted by the current U.S. hostility. The attitude was, she said, “Why not use this chance—very slim, barely existent, but because there is nobody else so why not use this one?”
And she added, if nothing came out of it, “Then it’s very easy to go back to anti-American rhetoric.”