US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet for the first time Friday at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, beginning a new chapter in the relationship between the world’s two largest military and nuclear powers.
With Russian foreign policy in direct opposition to US interests abroad, and a grinding investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian hackers in the 2016 presidential election, pundits look to the meeting as a high-stakes first step in a relationship that could be defining for both men.
But even before Putin came to power in 2000, all US presidents have made a fundamental mistake in dealing with Russian leaders, said Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia’s foreign policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Every American president, Democrat and Republican alike, comes in thinking that the problem lay with his predecessor, and he will be the one to fix the US-Russian relationship. But it never works out because the problem is not with the American side,” Borshchevskaya said. “It’s important to recognise that Putin doesn’t want to build democracy in Russia, and he doesn’t want Russia to move closer to the West — to the contrary, he sees Russia as standing in opposition to Western values.”
former President Barack Obama, the US frequently rebuked Russia for its incursions into Ukraine and Syria, and then for its meddling in the 2016 election. But while Obama did declare the US’s commitment to Western values, his words did not stop Russia from pursuing a very aggressive foreign policy and annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Far from acknowledging Obama’s rebukes or starting a dialogue, Putin still hasn’t admitted that Russia has had a role in backing the Ukrainian insurgency or in trying to sway the 2016 election.
Borshchevskaya said that no matter what the US offers, Russia does not want to be courted. For that reason, a US leader should “communicate to Putin that the US will stand by its values and protect its interests” with words that are backed up by action.
Rather than looking for Putin to cooperate with the US or chastise him for his foreign policy, Borshchevskaya said Trump must simply and credibly assert the US’s goals and his resolve in pursuing them.
“A productive conversation would be one where President Trump clearly communicates to Putin that the US won’t be quick to offer concessions, but to the contrary, that Trump is going to be a tough negotiator, one who Putin feels is committed to protecting American interests and values, and someone who he will back his talk with action, not just as a one-off, but on a consistent basis,” Borshchevskaya said.