The bilateral meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was scheduled to last about 35-40 minutes. Instead, the two men chatted for close to two and a half hours, discussing everything from how to decrease the violence in Syria to the threat of cyber-hacking to interference in other nation’s elections. A lot of lawmakers in Washington were afraid that Trump would avoid the Russian hacking in last year’s election entirely, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson let it be known to reporters that this was the very first topic that Trump brought up.
We’ll obviously never know every detail about the discussions, but the preliminary assessments point to a decent enough session for the president. Trump escaped the meeting without giving Putin anything significant: the Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and Long Island that were seized by the Obama administration last year remain in U.S. custody, and not a single sanction on Russia’s economy has been lifted.
Reports that Trump accepted Putin’s denial that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election will rub a lot of people the wrong way and may cloud everything else that happened today. But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Trump to let the past be the past—so long as he made it clear that it had better not happen again. Nothing short of Trump screaming at Putin in front of the cameras will be enough for Democrats, so it’s a waste of energy trying to please the likes of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi – both of them will continue to make Russian hacking an issue for political purposes.
The de-escalation or ceasefire agreement for southwestern Syria that was hammered out during the meeting is a nice deliverable and something that the administration can point to as a concrete accomplishment. But notwithstanding Tillerson’s assertion that Moscow is more committed to deescalation in Syria than we’ve ever been before, ceasefires have a tendency to be shredded after only a few days. If we’re lucky, the fighting will decrease for a couple of months. But it never stops, and we shouldn’t be under any illusions that it will this time either.
Those who were worried that the slick spymaster Putin would run the floor with the impulsive and juvenile Trump can rest easy. Putin might have hoped he could extract something from the U.S. delegation on the sanctions front, but he ultimately knew Russia is so despised in Washington right now that the political environment wouldn’t allow it. The fact that the session concluded without Trump getting fleeced and Putin flying back to Moscow without economic relief is in itself is a positive development.
The Trump-Putin mini-summit was an important first step in at least trying to get U.S.-Russia relations back on the right footing. Had the meeting been a disaster for Trump, his reasonable policy objective of improving America’s relationship with Moscow would have been severely hindered. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Trump has bought himself a little more time to explore what is possible with the Russians, and just as importantly what isn’t.