Trump expected to bring up Syria and Ukraine in Putin meeting, but not Russian election hacking

The White House has been tight-lipped about what Mr Trump will discuss with the Russian President in Germany 

Alexandra Wilts
Washington DC
Tuesday 04 July 2017 18:13 BST
A demonstrator holds up a sign of Vladimir Putin during an anti-Trump 'March for Truth' rally on June 3, 2017 in New York City
A demonstrator holds up a sign of Vladimir Putin during an anti-Trump 'March for Truth' rally on June 3, 2017 in New York City (Getty Images)

Donald Trump will soon come face-to-face with the man US intelligence services believe directed an unprecedented plot to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and help the US leader take power, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is believed that the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine will be the main talking points when Mr Trump meets with Mr Putin later this week at the G20 summit in Germany. But it is uncertain whether Mr Trump will bring up how Russian attackers attempted to interfere in the US election. The Russian President continues to deny any involvement in the cyber attacks.

Mr Trump warmed up his visit to Hamburg by speaking to both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni over the telephone on Monday. Ms Merkel has made it clear that she is displeased with the US's withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, and climate was one of the main topics on the call. She and Mr Trump may also clash over the issue at the summit.

However, it appears that Mr Trump's sideline meeting with Mr Putin will be the main attraction at the summit for many. Mr Trump – whose campaign advisers are facing several investigations into whether they colluded with the Russian government – has a difficult task. If he appears too friendly, critics will leap on the meeting as an example of the President being too soft with Mr Putin and the Kremlin. But, if he is too frosty, Mr Trump could lose the chance to try and repair relations that he has admitted are at a low.

It is not clear whether this will even be the first meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin. During a presidential debate in October, Mr Trump denied that he has ever met the Russian President, despite having claimed several times in the past that they have crossed paths. Mr Trump has previously praised Mr Putin in public, and the Russian president has described the US leader as “bright and talented”.

The White House has, perhaps understandably, been cagey about discussing the subject matters potentially on the table. Two Trump administration officials told CNN that the main issues Mr Trump and Mr Putin will discuss will be the complex civil war in Syria and the situation in Ukraine. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, eliciting international outrage that led to the Obama administration and other countries sanctioning Russia.

Mr Trump’s national security advisor HR McMaster told reporters last week: “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”

Mr McMaster did say administration officials had been instructed to draw up options to confront Russia over “destabilising behaviour” such as cyber threats and political subversion. Other topics of conversation could include how the two countries might cooperate over North Korea.

While the White House has mostly been tight-lipped about what the two leaders will discuss in Germany, the Russians have offered more hints.

The Kremlin has said Mr Putin will demand the return of two diplomatic compounds that were closed by the US last December as part of the retaliation over the election meddling.

The Russian President’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said on Monday that his government had shown “unusual flexibility” by not retaliating when then-President Obama confiscated the two compounds in New York state and Maryland and expelled 35 Russian diplomats, but that Moscow's patience "has its limits".

Mr Ushakov urged Washington to “free Russia from the need to take retaliatory moves”.

The compounds were formally used by the Russian embassy as recreational facilities, but US intelligence agencies have asserted they were bases for espionage.

A statement from the Russian government said the Kremlin expected that Mr Putin would convey the need to find the “most rapid resolution” on the issue, describing it as an “irritant” in Russian-US relations.

During Mr Obama's presidency, relations between Moscow and Washington were deemed to be at their worst since the Cold War – and they do not appear to have warmed much under the Trump administration.

Congress is currently attempting to pass legislation that would toughen sanctions on Russia. The Senate's bill would also establish a new congressional review process that would allow Congress to block Mr Trump if he tries to ease sanctions on Moscow.

However, despite the tension between the two governments, the Kremlin has listed areas in which it believes Russia could cooperate with the US. These issues include Russia’s dissatisfaction with US sanctions, its desire to cooperate on international terrorism, the crisis in Syria and improving efforts around nuclear arms control.

There is “significant potential for coordinating efforts”, the Kremlin said, adding “our countries can do much together in resolving regional crises”.

In Syria, Russia and the US are on opposite sides of the war, with the Kremlin supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last month, Russian officials threatened to treat US-led coalition planes flying in Syria, west of the Euphrates River, as targets after the US shot down a fighter jet belonging Syrian Government.

But not all may be lost, with work already beginning on ties ahead of the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, under immense scrutiny in the US over his contacts with Trump campaign associates, met in Washington with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon on Monday. Their meeting focused partially on preparations for the G20 summit.

Mr Shannon and Mr Kislyak also used their time together to discuss the possibility of a new meeting between Mr Shannon and Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, the State Department said, a move that would signal the two powers were again focused on trying to establish a functioning relationship. It was unclear if and when such a meeting would take place.

Mr Ryabkov and Mr Shannon had been slated to host an ongoing series of discussions aimed at addressing irritants that have thwarted efforts to get the US-Russia relationship back on track. The goal was to resolve smaller issues first, in hopes of restoring a base level of trust that could clear the way for broader discussions about Syria, Ukraine and other global crises. But Moscow nixed the second session last month to protest against new Trump administration sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

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