How the Kremlin span the On Again Off Again Trump-Putin Meeting

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Russian and American media covering last week's Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam treated their respective audiences to two very different plots with barely overlapping storylines.

Whereas the U.S. media focused on what President Donald Trump said about his Russian counterpart and the U.S. intelligence agencies, the Russian media presented a tense narrative of a summit meeting between Trump and Putin that almost fell through but went on to a happy conclusion, all obstacles notwithstanding.

Moscow wanted the two presidents to meet to bank a foreign policy profit in Syria. The previously agreed-on joint statement on Syria indeed contained some important, if not tectonic, advances in the two countries' joint anti-terrorist action in the region.

But all of these news items were drowned out by the tidal wave of media coverage focused, inevitably, on the most toxic aspects of the relationship between the two countries.

As most of the English-speaking readers are familiar with the American media coverage, I hope to provide a glimpse into the kind of treatment Russian media outlets were giving the latest installment of the Putin-Trump saga.

On learning that the White House was not confirming a formal sit-down with Trump, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov did not hide his dismay.

"We have heard about President Trump's willingness to meet President Putin, a willingness that Trump has himself voiced. How am I supposed to know what Trump's 'pen-pushers' think about the possibility of a formal meeting? I cannot be responsible for that. Ask the American side," Lavrov, a man not known to mince his words, responded when asked last Friday about the prospects of a formal tête-à-tête between Putin and Trump.

It was Russia's turn to serve as a formal organizer of a meeting but the American side proved recalcitrant, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. "The Americans showed no flexibility, and unfortunately did not offer any other alternative proposals. That is why the meeting could not happen," Peskov added.

Donald Trump chats with Vladimir Putin at the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty

But that was far from the full story as told by Russian media. Voskresnoe Vremya (Sunday Times), a weekly news roundup on Channel One, Russia's major nationwide television channel, told a tale of an intense struggle for an opportunity for the two presidents to at least cross paths. The fact of the meeting was the sole subject of an entire ten-minute segment that led the show.

After playing a brief clip of President Putin threatening (jokingly) to punish his protocol team for failing to accommodate a meeting with Trump, the presenter of Voskresnoe Vremya went on to say that Vietnam, as organizer, had tried to save the day and, intervening subtly, had directed Putin and Trump to stand next to each during the summit's first photo opportunity.

"This is how Putin and Trump, for the first time in Vietnam, found themselves close to each other," the presenter said.

The show then jumped into a brief flashback to the Vietnam War and lingered on the story of John McCain, whose warplane, the presenter reminded the watchers, was shot down fifty years ago in Vietnam.

"McCain, then a young U.S. pilot, is now a U.S. senator and a fierce opponent of a relationship with Russia," the audience was told. "Back in 1967 he tried to bomb Vietnam. He survived but he remembered our rockets that the Vietnam military of the time used to repel aerial attacks." Documentary shots of a young uniformed McCain flickered on the screen.

The program then played an interview with Jake Morphonios, a campaign manager and a journalist whose formal affiliation is unclear and who describes himself as a "geopolitical investigator" on his Twitter profile.

Morphonios went on to say that the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was right to point out that it was the officials who surround Trump who tried to prevent the two leaders from meeting.

"John Kelly in particular is obstructing many projects of cooperation between the two presidents," Morphios was heard saying in the Voskresnoe Vremya segment.

"Those within the DC establishment, what you would call the swamp, are seeking to prevent the two men from meeting and collaborating together on things that could bring about meaningful solutions to significant world problems facing our two nations," said Morphios, in a part of the same recording he himself posted on his YouTube channel.

I am sorry for the long recounting, but this is a taste of what Russia's media routine sounds like every day of every week (you be the judge as to whose media circus is better).

Similarly dramatic stories of Putin and Trump trying to meet against all odds were told, among others, by NTV, another major national television channel and Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK), a general interest Moscow daily with a nationwide reach.

"Vladimir Putin needed all his cool of a professional intelligence officer when the U.S. unexpectedly cancelled a meeting between the two presidents," the MK wrote, and then related a story full of suspense and sudden breakthroughs.

Inevitable Disappointment

Putin and Trump shaking hands was all over Russian media, presented as a triumph. The Kremlin clearly looked forward to that meeting.

Putin's preceding consultations with the leaders of Iran and Turkey, as well as Russia's and U.S. joint, if awkward, statement, allow us to conclude that Russia is seeking a way out of Syria, Alexander Shumilin, head of the Center for Analysis of the Greater Middle East Conflicts at the Institute of the U.S. and Canada, told the newspaper Vedomosti.

Shumilin saw two major takeaways from the Syria statement. The forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al Assad and an international coalition supported by the United States are ready to work together rather than fight each other.

The second important takeaway is Russia's readiness to go on and concede priority to the Geneva peace process rather than to the Astana process, the one that Moscow itself earlier initiated. The statement also confirms the two sides' commitment to maintaining the agreed-on de-escalation zones and withdrawing all foreign forces from the zone immediately bordering Israel.

These are all meaningful results that give hope of continued hard diplomatic work that might in the end lead to a peaceful solution in Syria. Moscow has shown some sensible flexibility while still insisting on the general success of its approach to Syria.

The meeting that did not happen could have been a symbolic coup for Moscow. The U.S. side denied it, and Lavrov's anger was explicable: he had invested a lot in this very real diplomatic effort.

But did Washington avoid the meeting because of any issues pertaining to the Middle East? Of course not. The intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering aimed at preventing a dreaded Trump-Putin encounter had little to do with Syria (or North Korea) and everything to do with the U.S. domestic agenda, dominated by the Russia-meddling scandal.

The Kremlin, of course, denies any wrongdoing and calls the accusations a product of American partisan politics. Whenever the issue of Russian alleged meddling arises, Russia's state-run media mention it in a dismissive tone, as a minor nuisance. But it is not a minor nuisance for the Americans.

President Putin clearly wants to be seen as a force for good in the world and specifically in the Middle East. Very well: whoever attempted to influence the American political system during the 2016 presidential campaign is to blame for the United States' and the wider world's continued failure to recognize Putin's benign role.

It is in the Kremlin's interest to help bring the real perpetrators into the open.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti. He is the author of Me and My Country: A Common Cause (2011) and People Behind the Fence (2016).