Trudolyubov: Did Putin Win the First Round of His Wrestling Match with Trump?

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump finally had a chance to meet in person.

No grand bargain transpired, but no one was disappointed because the expectations were set low enough.

The meeting was behind closed doors but, according to later press briefings, the presidents discussed Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, and Russia's election meddling.

If any positive results came out of the meeting they concerned areas in which Russia had a proactive stance: Syria and Ukraine. No shifts were reported on the issues that had dominated the U.S. agenda: North Korea's behavior and Russia's alleged attempts to interfere in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.

The election issue was supposed to be an awkward subject for the president of Russia but was in fact the easiest. Putin was consistent in denying Russia's role in hacking the Democratic National Committee or attempting to break into the election systems in multiple U.S. states, an allegation several members of the U.S. intelligence community supported during congressional hearings in June.

Trump created a shaky ground for himself when, the day before the Hamburg summit, he argued that Russia wasn't the only country that might be guilty of interfering. "Nobody really knows for sure," Trump said in Warsaw.

Who would expect a Russian president to take U.S. intelligence seriously when an American president openly questions it?

One might speculate about the reasons why Trump keeps being ambiguous on the election issue, but this creates the kind of uncertainty Moscow loves. Putin is in his element when yes and no are equally legitimate answers.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

He can "vehemently deny" Russian meddling, as he did during the Hamburg summit, but he can also muse about hackers being " like artists " who might sometimes take action against Russia's enemies, as Putin said during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in late May.

The ambiguity also allows politicians of the opposing sides to give wildly different accounts of the discussion.

"This is Russia trying to save face," Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the UN, said after the meeting. "And they can't. They can't. Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections. Everybody knows that they're not just meddling in the United States' election. They're doing this across multiple continents, and they're doing this in a way that they're trying to cause chaos within the countries."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov presented an exactly opposing reading of the conversation, at which he himself was present. According to Lavrov, Trump had accepted Putin's denial of Moscow's involvement.

"Trump mentioned [during the meeting] that in U.S. certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof," Lavrov said briefing reporters in Hamburg.

President Putin praised his American counterpart's performance. "A television Trump is different from the real one: the latter is much more specific, he grasps his interlocutor adequately, he knows how to analyse information quickly," the Russian daily Vedomosti reported Putin as saying.

Putin echoed his foreign minister in maintaining that Trump had essentially accepted that Russia was innocent of any meddling in the U.S. elections. "But there should be no uncertainty on this issue," Putin said. "This is why we agreed to create a Cyber Security Unit."

"I think that if we develop our relations in the same way, there is every reason to believe that we could at least partially restore the level of interaction that we need," Putin also said.

One of the very few issues on which the two sides agreed was a new ceasefire in the southeast of Syria. The deal had been in the works for quite a while.

"Moscow needed to stop the inefficient use of the Syrian armed forces in the relatively calm southeast and focus both the Syrians and their Iranian allies on the ISIS-held city of Deir ez-Zor," Vladimir Frolov, an astute Russian commentator on foreign policy, wrote. "A no-flight zone is being created for the purpose. It is the first time that Moscow has agreed to block operations of the Syrian air force there."

If the ceasefire holds, Jordan will be able to relocate some of the Syrian refugees it is currently hosting to this newly created de-escalation zone.

The two leaders also discussed more active U.S. involvement in solving the Ukrainian crisis, something Moscow has long advocated. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday he had appointed Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, as the new envoy responsible for the U.S. diplomatic effort in the conflict zone. President Putin welcomed the decision.

The ceasefire in the Syrian southeast is a great achievement, but it is a far cry from the kind of major multilateral deal that would stop the bloodshed and provide a new start for the region. The U.S. decision to appoint an envoy to Ukraine is a welcome move, but it was agreed to in principle during Secretary Tillerson's visit to Moscow in April.

The sides apparently did not agree on North Korea and, predictably and publicly, disagreed on the election interference issue. The two questions were important for Trump domestically, but Putin did not yield an inch of his territory on either.

Putin welcomed the appointment of a Ukraine envoy, but he himself had long asked for it. Putin was cooperative on Syria, but Russia had actively worked on the agreement in question in cooperation with the United States and Jordan, so no new ground was broken here either.

Unless the meeting had a secret agenda that neither of the two sides divulged (why a two-and-a-half-hour sitdown?), it did not strike one as particularly fateful. But its publicly visible tip was remarkable because the Russian side managed to shape the conversation on its own terms.

Maxim Trudolyubov is Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti.

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