Risk belongs to Trump when he meets with Putin in Japan: ANALYSIS

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Moscow -- President Donald Trump is set to meet with Russia's president Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Japan on Friday, in another encounter that Kremlin officials have suggested they were enthusiastically seeking out, but which for Trump comes fraught with potential political dangers at home.

With the 2020 election on the horizon and special counsel Robert Mueller set to testify to Congress next month, a meeting with Putin threatens to revive concerns about Russian election meddling and questions about Trump's response.

For Putin on the other hand, experts said, there are almost only positives to be gained from a meeting. The encounter in Osaka on Friday -- which the Kremlin said is scheduled to last an hour -- is a chance for Putin to show off his stature on the world stage and to press his views on Trump. The two leaders' previous three encounters -- most famously their 2018 summit in Helsinki -- have also produced global headlines mocking Trump for playing the stooge to Putin.

"If we look at their previous meetings, I think there is no reason for the Kremlin to be disappointed," said Maria Lipman, a veteran foreign policy analyst in Moscow.

Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy aide to Putin, on Wednesday implied the two had not agreed to a set agenda yet, but then listed off virtually every regional conflict where the U.S. and Russia are at odds, from Venezuela to Syria and Afghanistan. The ongoing crisis between Iran and the U.S. would also be high on the agenda, he said.

The vagueness of the agenda seemed to reflect that while the U.S. and Russia have an abundance of subjects that require attention, there is little expectation that direct talks between the two leaders will produce anything concrete, or alter the dynamic of poor relations between the two countries.

In recent months, though, Russian officials have nevertheless repeatedly said Putin would like a more full-fledged meeting with Trump. That enthusiasm was seen by some to underline the fact of the two meeting was itself good enough for the Kremlin.

"When the handshake is more important than the conversation," ran the headline of an editorial in a leading Russian newspaper, Vedomosti on Thursday. The task of the talks is "to show that there is contact between the presidents, but not more than that."

Both the Trump administration and the Kremlin have recently signaled a greater desire for cooperation. The head of Putin's national security council, Nikolai Patrushev, last week held talks with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in Jerusalem to discuss Iran and Syria.

But Trump is already facing pressure over his previous meetings with Putin, some of which are under investigation by Congress over reports that Trump destroyed translators' notes afterwards, and met without any U.S. officials present. The reported destruction of notes is also the subject of lawsuits that allege the Trump administration has violated federal laws about records preservation.

On Wednesday, Trump fueled those concerns when he told a reporter who asked whether he would raise election meddling with Putin, "What I say to him is none of your business."

"I'll have a very good conversation with him," Trump said as he left the White House.

Former American foreign policy officials have previously said one of the reasons they worry about such private interactions is that Putin, a trained spy, could use them to influence Trump's views without pushback from advisors. They also worry that Putin -- who comes heavily prepped according to those who have negotiated with him --might pluck a pledge from Trump without the president realizing what he is conceding.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia who held a summit with Putin in 2001, told ABC News last year that a meeting with Putin always required a leader to be on their guard.

"There would seem always to be something that Putin would spring on us unexpectedly," he said. "This is definitely part of his M.O."

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