HAMBURG — President Trump hoped for “very positive” openings with Moscow as he opened his highly anticipated meeting Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man believed to have ordered a campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election. It was Trump’s first face-to-face talk with the Russian leader.
The world was watching closely as the two met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. The meeting came at a time of growing tensions over an increasingly assertive U.S. military role in Syria, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and military maneuvers by Russia and NATO in Europe.
It was unclear, however, how much the talks could redirect the narrative on either side. The U.S. probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is moving ahead, and the two countries remain far apart on many issues.
But the mood was genial as Putin and Trump, sitting side by side, addressed reporters before the meeting.
“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump said.
“We’ve had some very, very good talks. We’re going to have a talk now and obviously that will continue,” Trump added. “We look forward to a lot of very positive happenings for Russia and for the United States and for everyone concerned.”
Putin, referring to the phone conversations the two presidents have had, said “phone conversations are never enough definitely.”
“I’m delighted to be able to meet you personally,” Putin said. “And I hope that, as you have said, our meetings will yield positive results.”
Trump and Putin were joined in the meeting by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The contrast was clear: the Russian side has decades of diplomatic and leadership experience under its belt, while Trump and Tillerson are political newcomers despite extensive international business ties.
Syria, Ukraine and the battle against terrorism were certain to come up at the planned 35-minute chat set against the backdrop of anti-globalist protests. Russia has also raised objections to U.S. calls for tighter economic sanctions on North Korea after its latest missile test.
But those issues are the undercard to the dynamics of president’s meeting with a Kremlin leader accused of overseeing a hacking and disinformation effort on Trump’s behalf.
Several reporters in the room asked Trump if he would raise Russia’s election meddling, but Trump ignored the question. The U.S. president leaned toward Putin and said something that elicited a chuckle from the Russian.
Hours earlier, in a brief preliminary encounter, Trump and Putin shook hands. Video on a German government Facebook page showed Putin adding a friendly little finger point and a smile, while Trump clapped the Russian leader on the shoulder. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Trump and Putin had exchanged pleasantries and said “they’d see each other later.”
Trump on Thursday once again downplayed the notion that Russia meddled on his behalf in the 2016 election, which would seem to play into one of the Kremlin’s main objectives. Any signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington can put aside past differences and forge a new relationship is a victory for Putin.
In two tweets earlier Friday, Trump said he was looking forward to the meeting, and that “I will represent our country well and fight for its interests!”
The Kremlin has said that Putin wants the United States to hand back two compounds that the previous administration seized in late December in retaliation for Russia’s actions in the U.S. campaign.
The Trump administration has already indicated it might return those compounds, which the Obama administration said were being used to gather intelligence. But Trump is facing bipartisan opposition at home not to lift sanctions against what many in Washington see as an adversary intent on weakening democratic institutions and diminishing U.S. global leadership.
“The return of these two facilities to Russia while the Kremlin refuses to address its influence campaign against the United States would embolden President Vladimir Putin and invite a dangerous escalation in the Kremlin’s destabilizing actions against democracies worldwide,” Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Trump on Thursday.
The Senate recently voted 97 to 2 in favor of a Russian sanctions amendment to the Iran sanctions bill that “would require strict congressional review of any decision to overturn or lift existing policies on Russia, including the return of these two dachas, and would impose new sanctions to deter Russian aggression against the U.S. and its allies.”
In a speech in Poland, Trump gave mixed signals on the eve of the summit, urging Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.”
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said in a briefing Friday that Putin was told about the remarks and that the Russian leader “is taking that into account.”
“Let’s wait for the results of the meeting,” Peskov said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Along with that note Thursday, Trump also repeated a position shared by Putin, saying that “nobody really knows” who was behind the hacking during the U.S. presidential campaign, and questioning U.S. intelligence agencies’ affirmation of Russia’s involvement because they were wrong about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
That both of these statements align with the Kremlin’s own stance on the election hacking creates another interesting look for the U.S. president, who once famously wanted Putin to be his “new best friend.”
More recently, Trump caused a stir when he met with Lavrov in the White House and shared intelligence on the Islamic State provided to the United States by Israel.
There’s also the sense expressed by Russian observers that Putin, the seasoned leader with a clear objective, notoriously well-prepared and ever the operative, will have a notable advantage over a neophyte politician who has so far led the free world in fitful jerks and stops that have left even America’s closest allies confused.
And while Peskov this week warned against expecting anything more than a get-to-know-you meeting, Tillerson this week floated a proposal that would expand U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria.
In advance of the Trump-Putin meeting, Tillerson held an hour-long conversation with Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “The parties discussed key topics on the international and bilateral agenda,” read the ministry’s statement.
Peskov on Thursday said Putin would raise Russia’s concerns that Ukraine is violating the Minsk peace accords, which call for a cease-fire in the three-year-old war with pro-Russian separatists. U.S. sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea were broadened to punish Moscow for backing the separatists militarily, which Putin has denied. Ukraine said a recently captured soldier it said was working for the Russian military is further proof.
Putin is also expected to pressure Trump to back a de-escalation plan for the Korean Peninsula that would have North Korea halt its ballistic missile program and the United States and South Korea call off their large-scale military drills.
Above all, Putin is hoping to forge a relationship that will open the way for dealmaking later on, if and when domestic pressure on Trump over Russian meddling abates, even if it means putting up with Trump’s mixed signals.
Russian policymakers expect Trump “to demonstrate a certain public toughness with Putin for his domestic critics, and they can live with this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “Provided that in private Trump makes it clear he wants to close the page on prior disagreements and start rebuilding the relationship without making it conditional on Russia’s dramatic and immediate reversal of its policies in Ukraine and Syria.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report from Washington.