It is heresy for international-relations geeks to say that a diplomatic summit meeting doesn’t matter. But here goes: It doesn’t matter that much what Trump says about his currently cancelled meeting this weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sure, it makes for gasp-inducing headlines when the U.S. president calls off talks with another world leader with only two days notice (and on Twitter, no less):
It’s possible that Trump will still spend some time with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. But whatever the outcome, three big facts don’t change: First, Moscow significantly escalated its aggression in Ukraine last weekend, and the West had no unified response. Second, Moscow and Washington have a set of things they want from each other. Neither is getting any satisfaction, summit or no. And finally, Trump’s personal attitude toward the Russian government remains … odd.
Let’s take those one at a time. Since Russia’s takeover of the formerly Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, Moscow has steadily taken steps to make the region easier for Russians to access, and harder for Ukrainian ships, civil or military, to navigate around. (Imagine New Jersey seizing Staten Island and you’ll get the idea.)
On Sunday, Russia took things a step further by chasing, shooting at, and capturing several Ukrainian ships in waters that the Ukrainians — and international law — say they had every right to be in.
A European country shooting at another European country is a big deal. You do not see it every day, thankfully. It is a big deal for Ukraine, and for many of Russia’s other neighbors, which worry that Russia could one day do the same to them. (Of course, in some neighboring countries, such as Georgia and Moldova, Russia already has.)
Since some vulnerable countries on Russia’s border are treaty allies of the United States through NATO, in principle it ought to be a big deal here as well. However, the Trump administration was slow to respond, and Russia didn’t seem to take seriously Trump’s comment in a Tuesday interview with the Washington Post that he would “maybe” cancel his planned meeting with Putin.
On Wednesday morning, Russian officials told reporters they had heard nothing from Washington about a cancellation, and by Wednesday afternoon Russian news agency TASS was assuring its readers that “the White House has let it be understood that President Trump does not intend to comment further on the situation in the Kerch Strait.” Then came Thursday’s tweet, abruptly calling off the meeting.
It has to be said that Washington, for once, was not alone in finding itself divided and at a loss for a response. European Union foreign ministers were able to agree that Russia’s actions in Crimea were “unacceptable,” but did not adopt sanctions or issue any other response. Looking at this division, a German official told Politico Europe: “At times like this, I’m happy we don’t have a European army.”
To be clear, European history is littered with armies that thought they could push as far into Russia as the Kerch Strait, and failed. The reality is that there isn’t any good military response — but the situation still warranted something more than the confused, tepid response it got.
Putin has made clear throughout his time in power that he watches carefully to see whether the West will extract consequences for his actions, and then proceeds accordingly. And as he heads to the G20 summit, with its string of encounters with Western leaders, Putin does have goals he wants, and even needs, to achieve. This includes avoiding new sanctions that might make Russian citizens’ lives harder, and complicate things for his oligarchs, their families, their businesses, and their squirreled-away money. Putin also wants to ensure there’s no additional military pressure in Syria; ideally Washington will instead acknowledge a central role for Russia in the region’s security architecture. Putin is happy that Trump plans to leave the INF treaty, thus saving Russia the embarrassment of being called out for violating it. But he’s likely concerned about where the Pentagon might station the shorter-range nuclear-tipped missiles that were banned under the treaty. Ultimately, Putin wants Washington and Europe to accept his annexation of Crimea and acquiesce to his efforts to make Ukraine a compliant client state.
To be clear, Putin wasn’t going to get anything off that wishlist from Trump at this meeting, and Moscow knew it. Shortly before Trump’s cancellation tweet, a Russian deputy foreign minister told Bloomberg: “Our relationship is simply a mess … The political will of the president himself is not sufficient to change course.” More broadly, the Russian government is disappointed and frustrated with Trump, says scholar Dmitri Trenin: “They see the U.S. president as a self-centered person, essentially guided by instincts, who prides himself on his ability to make deals.”
And although U.S. pundits busily made up lists of things Trump should do, or demand, from Putin, none of that was going to happen either — despite the hawkish tone of his Russia team.
That brings us to the last point that no meeting can change: Trump’s attitude toward Moscow is just odd. His cancellation of the meeting as new details emerged about his former lawyer Michael Cohen’s meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign may have been intended to take an awkward subject off the table at home. But it certainly won’t change thinking among the president’s critics — or Robert Mueller’s investigators. And it will lead Putin to conclude — not for the first time — that Trump is weak. Perhaps more important, it tells Putin that the United States — our people and system of government — are not up to his challenge. And that is likely to encourage him to adventure more, not less.