MOSCOW ― On Friday, two of the world’s most prominent leaders ― U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin ― finally met face to face during the G-20 summit in Hamburg. While many Americans seemed to be highly critical of their president shaking hands with the leader whose country has been accused of meddling in the United States presidential election, to many Russians, the much-awaited event seemed to once again usher in the promise of better relations and the end to a new “Cold War.”
Over the last few months, as Trump and his team have faced allegations of ties to the Kremlin, the mood in Russia towards America has grown increasingly gloomy. When it became clear that Trump would be the next American president, expectations were high, there was talk of a “bromance” and inauguration parties were held to celebrate the business tycoon’s victory. But that subsided as the controversies piled up, and many in Russia felt that the bilateral relationship, which had been tense under former U.S. President Barack Obama, would end up being worse. This feeling was validated when Trump made strong statements about Crimea and ordered a U.S. strike on Syria.
To many Russians, the much-awaited event seemed to once again usher in the end of a new 'Cold War.'
But now, after Trump and Putin have met, people in government, on state media and on the streets of Russia are again starting to hail the relationship as one moving away from Cold War era frostiness to something much more hopeful. Others, like myself, are more cautious because they know that the two leaders still have to confront the same challenges and the face-to-face encounter is not going to change things globally. But they are still more optimistic than before.
‘People like Trump and Putin will always prefer a deal to a quarrel’
Even before the meeting ended, Russian officials proclaimed it a success. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Trump accepted Putin’s denial of any Russian influence over the U.S. election result. Later, other high-ranking Russian politicians expressed their pleasure with how “the big political event” had transpired, calling it the first step towards a more positive relationship and a promise of more extensive ties between the U.S. and Russia.
Various Russian state media outlets like Russia Today published pieces that described the meeting as “promising.” They emphasized the fact that the meeting turned out to be longer than expected, and noted that Trump called it a “tremendous” meeting, while his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, used the phrase “positive chemistry.”
Even Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov admitted that the meeting with Trump was good for Putin. Reacting to the news, Milov, quoted his old column for the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies about the U.S.-Russian relationship, in which he wrote that Trump can’t really manage the Syria crisis without Russian military force and as a result, will have to get along with Putin.
The idea that a new tone in U.S.-Russian relations is possible now after the in-person bilateral meeting seems to be shared not just by Russian politicians but by ordinary Russians as well. For them, though, the more important sign of improvement was the human interaction between the politicians.
According to Pavel Dvorochnikov, a 21-year-old student from Perm, a small city east of Moscow, who is now studying in the capital, even though the two leaders are representing competing countries, Trump and Putin have a lot in common as people. And that could make all the difference.
“Both Trump and Putin have strong personalities,” he said. “Both are pragmatic because Trump has a business background and Putin a military one. Both are skeptical about all these fancy human rights. Such people will always prefer a deal to a quarrel.”
'Putin is highly interested in getting a positive connection with [the] U.S. president this time.' Alexandr Volkov, a 36-year-old owner of a small cleaning business in Moscow
And beyond their individual similarities, some saw Putin’s rare composure and etiquette in the meeting as a sign of already strengthened personal ties between the two presidents.
“As we know from the long history of Putin’s visits, he is always late for them, and the less the person he is meeting is important for him, the more time it [takes] for Putin to arrive,” Alexandr Volkov, a 36-year-old owner of a small cleaning business in Moscow, said. “But his meeting with Trump started almost in time, just 15 to 20 minutes later, right? So, that means that Putin is highly interested in getting a positive connection with [the] U.S. president this time.”
Maria Temnova, a 30-year-old public relations specialist from Moscow, agreed and said Trump reciprocated these manners. She said Trump was also looking more friendly during the meeting with Putin than with many of the other global politicians he was encountering, especially when it came to handshakes.
“Trump has his own special public manner, and he usually has a very strong handshake, which stresses his opponent,” Temnova said. “But with Putin on Friday, Trump behaved more calmly. Russian TV showed the moment of their handshake, and Trump was very accurate with his hands.”
‘Whether Putin likes Trump or not, Russia doesn’t like the U.S.’
For others, though, the results of the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Trump were not to be celebrated just yet. While the majority of Russians I’ve encountered seem optimistic about the relationship’s future, some see the disputes between the countries as so fundamental that no degree of sympathy or personal will of their two leaders can change it.
“Russia and the U.S. have been in opposition for too long for becoming friends again so quickly,” Dmitry Bovirin, a 27-year-old doctoral student from Moscow, said. “And this opposition is determined by our different views on the Russian role in the modern world, as the U.S. doesn’t want to see us as an equal partner.”
According to him, both Russian politicians and ordinary Russians are humiliated by the way the U.S. sees the role of Russia in the world.
“Whether Putin likes Trump or not, Russia doesn’t like the U.S.” Bovirin added.
Yulia Latynina, a Kremlin critic and political journalist from the Russian liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, similarly aired her concerns about the event. Russia is seen as an unequal partner in the world for a good reason, she said, and that’s also left Putin with less negotiating power.
“What happened at that meeting? The answer: ‘Nothing.’ Why? Because Putin has nothing to offer Trump,” she said in her radio program following the bilateral encounter. Russia, she continued, can only “offer to eliminate the difficulties she herself has created,” and even then, it doesn’t always follow through.
Even if Trump looks past this and sees Russia as a possible partner, in the current situation, whatever he does would be interpreted badly by U.S. media and put a stain on his already suffering image back home.
“The ongoing scandal about possible Russian ties of Trump blocks almost every maneuver he could have with Putin,” Pavel Kruchkov, a 35-year-old freelance journalist from Moscow, explained. “And Trump doesn’t want to lose the popularity he has as a leader.”
'The ongoing scandal about possible Russian ties of Trump blocks almost every maneuver he could have with Putin.' Pavel Kruchkov, a 35-year-old freelance journalist from Moscow
According to Kommersant, the meeting between Trump and Putin didn’t make it clear if either president plans to de-escalate tensions between the two countries. Another piece published in Vedomosti points out that even if both Trump and Putin are looking for a positive change, they still will have to face their differences over how to handle the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, not to mention the possibility of the lifting of Russian sanctions.
Now that the fanfare has begun to die down, both leaders have to think clearly about what they have at stake in this relationship in the future. One of the reasons why it took so much time for Trump and Putin to meet after the U.S. election was probably because of their common instinct that in the current political climate, any personal meeting would make relations worse.
Well, waiting for so long definitely didn’t make it any better because now both presidents already have a half a year of history of communicating with each other indirectly. This history, which includes both growing Russian dissatisfaction with America and a number of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy actions, already gives a quite clear picture of the current dynamic of the U.S.-Russian relationship. It will likely remain one of disconnection in many important spheres like the Syria or Ukraine conflicts because what’s been established can’t be erased with one in-person chat.
Besides, Russia’s mostly positive reactions about the Putin-Trump meeting will only disrupt the two leaders and steer them away from each other more. For many American politicians and ordinary people, such excitement in Russian society is likely to be just another reason to be suspicious about the possibility of Trump’s ties with the Kremlin. And Trump, who always wants to be the best, will be forced once again to distance himself from Russia and confront Putin’s moves every so often to maintain his status.
In fact, it’s already begun. Even though Putin and Trump said that the past had been put behind them on election meddling over the weekend, Trump seemed to walk back on an agreement about creating a cybersecurity unit with Russia despite having expressed support for it hours before. If this is any indication of what’s to come, the Putin-Trump relationship will be an endless repetition of hot and cold that flirts from bromance to new “Cold War” and ultimately leaves us all on edge.