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Clash of the Titans

What actually happened in the 136-minute meeting?
By The News · 10 of July 2017 08:58:47
President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg, President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci), photo: AP/Evan Vucci

After so much hype and speculation, the meeting between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last Friday, July 7, turned out to be much ado about nothing.

The much-anticipated face-to-face encounter of the two international power brokers, which took place behind closed doors during the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, was expected to be either a confirmation of a less-than-appropriate “bro-ship” between the two leaders or a confrontational clash of political ideologies and ethical dogmas.

It was neither.

One day earlier, in a speech in Warsaw, Trump had warned Moscow to curb its support for “hostile regimes” such as Iran (the U.S. president’s current favorite whipping boy) and Syria, and to stop meddling in the Ukraine.

During that speech, Trump also called on Russia to join “the community of responsible nations,” but made no direct reference to alleged Kremlin interference in last November’s U.S. presidential elections, a topic on which he has been guardedly ambiguous.

So what actually happened in the 136-minute meeting that took place with a backdrop of tens of thousands of protestors demonstrating against globalization and capitalist values facing off violently against German security forces in black riot gear?

It is hard to say, exactly, since only six people attended the tête-à-tête, including U.S. Secretary of State W. Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and two interpreters.

All of them have been relatively tight-lipped as to the precise topics of dialogue that took place (other than the conflicting interpretations of discussions on Russian meddling in last November’s U.S. presidential elections), but it’s a pretty sure bet that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the growing nuclear ambitions of North Korea (which last week launched a long-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan) were on the agenda.

As for the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. elections, Tillerson said that there was a “robust exchange” between the two men on the topic, but was evasive as to particulars except to add that Putin flatly denied the charges.

The Kremlin had its own take on the talks, claiming that Trump essentially accepted Putin’s denials of meddling.

At least on the topic of Syria, Trump and Putin seem to have found some middle ground, with U.S. officials later announcing that the United States and Russia had reached an agreement to implement yet another ceasefire in the heavily disputed southwest portion of that war-torn nation.

Climate change (a concept that Trump has been loath to embrace), terrorism (both leaders want to put an end to the Islamic State’s jihadist attacks), and Western sanctions against Moscow for its 2014 annexation of Crimea were also likely to be discussed, as well as the Kremlin’s displeasure with the U.S. missile defense buildup in Eastern Europe.

Before and after the meeting, both Trump and Putin seemed to bend over backwards to leave their traditional political swagger at the door and express the appropriate noncommittal niceties toward one another through cordial handshakes and kind words.

Publicly, Trump told Putin it was “an honor” to meet him, and the former KGB coronal responded by saying “I’m delighted to meet you.”

But, behind closed doors, there is a chance that the showdown was not quite so affable, which would not bode well for the already-turbulent global geopolitical landscape.

Still, although both men are known for their brash and combative natures, Trump seems to always want to start off with bootlicking fawning (especially when it comes to confronting opponents who he feels might be more capable than he is), and Putin is known for playing both his associates and adversaries through carefully orchestrated psychological warfare (nine years ago, he intentionally brought his pet Labrador to a meeting with Angela Merkel, knowing full well that she had a strong phobia of dogs).

During the Hamburg meeting, Putin may well have tried to court Trump through playing to his ego with adorning accolades and fallacious demonstrations of admiration.

And Trump may have responded with an openness and sincere conviviality.

If so, that could have laid the groundwork for closer bilateral cooperation between the two men, helping to thaw the dangerously mounting and icy tensions of a renewed Cold War.

In this world of constant media leaks and information disclosures from twittering bureaucrats, there is the possibility that someone at the secretive meeting (probably one of the interpreters, but who knows) will eventually let some details of the encounter slip.

But for now, what happened in Hamburg seems likely to stay there, and that may be a good thing, since diplomacy is the one element of government that is best done behind closed doors.

And, while the tepid ceasefire accord (which, like so many previous armistices in Syria, is most likely destined to fail due to a lack of cooperation from the scores of diverse factions fighting in the failed state) may not be much to show for a two-hour, 16-minute face-off between the two global titans, at least, it is a good start, and it could pave the way for more significant advances in international diplomacy.

Lord knows, the world needs more global cooperation, and less political confrontation.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.