If U.S. President Donald J. Trump sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Buenos Aires, it will likely be their tensest meeting yet. It will certainly be the first that is not centered on the broad desire both leaders have expressed for a cooperative U.S.-Russia relationship. Moscow’s and Washington’s policies toward each other have become more confrontational in recent weeks. Before they can put relations on a cooperative track, Trump and Putin have to grapple with a series of matters on which both their actions and rhetoric are sharply at odds.
Ukraine. Before this week’s Russian attacks on Ukrainian naval ships off Crimea, many observers believed Putin had put his policy toward Ukraine on hold until the country holds presidential elections next year. U.S. officials took a similar approach. In his press conference after meeting with Putin in late October, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton did not even mention Ukraine (and may not have raised it in official discussions). But the recent surge of violence has made the issue impossible to avoid. Senior U.S. officials have surely told Trump that he has to convince Putin that further aggression will carry real costs, and that he should rule out sanctions relief.
Arms control. The Trump administration’s proposed withdrawal from the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) offered Putin certain obvious benefits; it would relax restrictions on Russian missile deployments, about which Moscow has long complained. But the issue has not brought the two sides together. Russian officials regularly warn Washington against new missile deployments in Europe and, more generally, against an intensified nuclear arms race. They worry that Trump will continue to resist early renewal of the Obama-era New START treaty on strategic nuclear arms, which will otherwise expire in 2021. If Trump wants a deliverable from the Buenos Aires meeting, the resumption of talks on strategic stability would be an easy choice. For now, however, rhetoric on both sides remains contentious.
Election meddling. Both governments have hoped attention to this issue would subside, but it has to be raised in their meeting. Trump has told the U.S. intelligence community to report to him next month on Russian efforts to affect the midterm elections; in Buenos Aires he could use this directive to deflect questions about meddling. Other administration officials, however, have taken a more aggressive line. In a brief encounter with Putin in Singapore, Vice President Mike Pence reportedly dismissed Russian denials of election interference, and Bolton took a similar stance in Moscow. Pence and Bolton could be trying to reduce direct pressure on the president to confront Putin, but, by setting a high bar, they have also made it hard for Trump to ignore the matter.
Syria and Iran. Bolton says his meetings in Moscow last month produced an “agreement to tighten coordination” in Syria. Yet U.S. officials regularly stress two themes that will make working together more difficult: that Russia should force Iranian and Iran-backed forces out of Syria, and that some U.S. troops will remain there until those forces are gone. Because Iran has been Russia’s essential partner in Syria, the first demand is a complete nonstarter; as for the second, Moscow detects a continuing U.S. desire to bring down the Assad regime. Genuine strategic cooperation in Syria and the Middle East is an increasingly distant goal.
The Bottom Line
All these disagreements could conceivably encourage Trump and Putin to focus at last on concrete problem-solving. But they could also produce more open and explicit competition. They could even convince the two presidents to give up on better relations altogether and accept estrangement as a fact of life. What is becoming less likely is a replay of previous meetings—that is, continued lip service to cooperation without any forward movement. Unless Trump and Putin recalibrate, they will achieve little at their Buenos Aires meeting. As U.S.-Russian disagreements mount, both sides may stop pretending to care.