The G20 summit, which began Friday in Hamburg, Germany, witnessed a long-overdue handshake between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. On the surface, the meeting might signal mutual willingness to translate into practice the apparent friendly ties between the two leaders. But even despite each side’s comments that the meeting went well, it’s evident they don’t trust each other.
Trump was adamant during the presidential campaign that American policy toward Russia should change, all the more reason to think that once in office, one of Trump’s priorities would be to make clear steps to mend ties with Moscow. But this eagerness around improving relations has likely stalled due to allegations about Russian interference in U.S. elections, and awareness of Russia’s aim to revise the rules of liberal world order around the world. Earlier this week at the Three Seas Initiative Summit, Trump reassured Eastern Europe countries of America’s commitment to deter Russian aggression, and the U.S. has continued—or even increased—its criticism toward Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Russia has also been quite reluctant in engaging directly with President Trump. Up until now, Putin was faced with somewhat predictable and stable Western leaders. He could understand and plan in advance in order to counter the moves of the likes of Barack Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump’s election, while seemingly favorable for Russia, hasn’t actually been met with genuine bouts of joy by the Kremlin.
Instead, the Russian foreign policy establishment has put a lot of effort in evaluating what Trump and his administration mean for American foreign policy. Trump is viewed in the Kremlin as an erratic and unpredictable leader, whose words can’t really be trusted. Coupled with this, Putin knows that Trump’s power is limited by the American political establishment, and sees him more as an unpredictable entertainer than a leader. As a consequence, even before Trump was sworn in, the Kremlin had already developed a series of contingency plans for dealing with a possible change of heart from the new U.S. president.
Establishing good relations with Russia has been the goal of U.S. administrations over the last 25 years. Few have actually managed to achieve some measure of success in this regard. The most spectacular failure was the one of the Obama administration after the famous 'reset' initiative that Hillary Clinton spearheaded, which started off aiming to reset relations with Moscow, and ended up creating tensions similar to those experienced during the Cold War.
Russia sees cooperation with the U.S. not only based on declarations of friendship, but also on striking various deals that take into account Moscow's interests. This involves recognizing Russia’s right to enjoy all of the traditional trappings of a great power: for example, persevering a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, being seen as an equal, or having both the right and duty to decide on key issues on the international agenda. During his presidency, Obama became aware of this, and U.S.-Russia relations gradually slipped into conflict. It is likely that once Trump comes to grips with Russia’s demands, he will follow Obama’s path and abandon his friendly discourse.
The G20 meeting between Trump and Putin shows that we are still in the courtship period, where the American president and the Russian one have finished sizing each other up. The only topics where the two presidents might have made (or will soon make) some headway are North Korea, which the Kremlin views as an important threat, and Syria, where both sides seem more open to some sort of deal. Trump’s tough response to the recent successful ICBM test by North Korea resonates well with Russia. However, due to Russia’s geographical proximity to North Korea, Putin will likely try to push for a more cautioned approach. In terms of Syria, Trump has shown more willingness than his predecessor to accept the preservation of the Assad regime, in return for Russian cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Putin will soon recognize that Trump cannot guarantee Russia its desired perks of a great power. Trump will also find that, unlike him, Putin is a person who prefers to act strongly rather than to talk shop.
Cristian Nitoiu is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University.