HAMBURG: US President Donald Trump meets Russian leader Vladimir Putin for the first time Friday, in an eagerly awaited encounter at a G20 summit marked by the growing divide between America and its Western allies.
On the eve of a face-off that carries consequences for world crises including the wars in Syria and Ukraine, Trump set the tone Thursday with a strong attack against Moscow for its “destabilizing” actions.
The property tycoon and the ex-KGB agent’s first meeting promises to be dissected frame by frame, with their handshake and body language including each facial twitch to be scrutinized for any sign of rapprochement or estrangement.
“While Trump pro-wrestling approach is showy, bombastic and impulsive, Putin thrives on judo’s discipline and mental toughness, where a core technique is to keep an opponent off-balance and exploit his weakness,” noted Derek Chollet from think-tank German Marshall Fund.
“How these contrasting styles of machismo interact… will likely be the defining feature of their relationship moving forward.”
The blockbuster bilateral meeting comes on the sidelines of what is expected to be the most fraught G20 summit in years in the German city of Hamburg.
Trump’s “America First” and climate skeptic stance are set to test the relationship with longstanding allies, while North Korea adds more volatility to global security.
Scenes outside the heavily guarded conference hall were also stormy, as anti-globalization protesters fought running battles overnight with police who fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse extreme-left Black Bloc militants late Thursday.
End ‘destabilizing’ action
Trump had alarmed Western partners wary of a resurgent Moscow with his refrain on the campaign trail pledging to have a “great relationship with Putin and Russia.”
But amid accusations that Moscow had a hand in propelling him to the White House, Trump finds himself in a tight spot over his complex relationship with the Russian leader.
In a key speech in Warsaw marking his first stop on his European tour, Trump fired a rare salvo of criticism at Russia.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes—including Syria and Iran—and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” he told a cheering crowd of 10,000.
He admitted that Moscow “may have” tried to influence the 2016 election that brought him to power, but also suggested others too may have been involved and blames his predecessor Barack Obama for failing to act.
When the pair sit down for their afternoon meeting, they will not be short of crucial issues to discuss, including the wars in Syria and Ukraine, North Korea’s nuclear program and efforts to combat terrorism.
A White House source confirmed to Agence France-Presse that Trump will only be joined in the meeting by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a translator, an extraordinarily small cast list that raised concerns among experts.
“Neither Tillerson or Trump have any experience of foreign policy. That is one reason why they need pros in the room when meeting Putin,” said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, who added that Trump was now more likely to appease Putin.
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul expressed concern that Trump’s National Security advisor H.R. McMaster and his team—seen as moderating influences in the White House—were being sidelined.
“Putin likes small meetings. This means WH is letting Kremlin dictate the terms of this meeting. HR, at a minimum, should also be there,” he wrote on Twitter.
Ahead of the talks, the US also extended a hand of cooperation to Russia, voicing willingness to work together on establishing “no-fly zones” in Syria as part of a joint effort to stabilize the war-ravaged country.