When Donald Met Vlad

We’ll learn what Putin thinks of Trump by what he tries to get away with.


US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7.

US President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7.PHOTO: AFP CONTRIBUTOR#AFP/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

By the time President Trump sat down in Hamburg, Germany with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the media hype had built the meeting into virtually the second coming of the Reykjavik Summit. The agreement that fell out of the Hamburg bilateral was the announcement of a cease-fire in southwestern Syria.

Any cessation of hostilities in Syria is welcome, and we can hope it will become the basis for similar agreements on the country’s more complex northern war fronts. But that would require Mr. Putin to abandon his grand strategy for re-establishing Russian influence across the Middle East, in partnership with Iran and Syria. That would take a real summit and more planning than went into the Hamburg sit-down.

Messrs. Trump and Putin brought only their foreign ministers into the meeting, suggesting that the primary goal here was to take each other’s measure. Both men famously pride themselves in their ability to size up adversaries—Mr. Trump as a negotiator of real-estate deals and Mr. Putin as a former KGB recruiter of foreign agents. 

The American and Russian sides also bring distinctly different intentions into meetings like this one. For the American side, prodded by an insistent media narrative, the goal is to discover areas of possible “cooperation.” In Mr. Putin’s world, such a meeting has one purpose: to discover if he will be able to press Russian interests forward without significant pushback from the U.S. President.

Mr. Putin concluded that Barack Obama would pose minimal resistance, and so he seized Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and adopted Syria’s Bashar Assad. He’s still in all three places.

We can’t guess what Mr. Putin made of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump for his part enjoys his reputation for unpredictability, and he confirmed this by pressing Mr. Putin on Russia’s efforts to disrupt the U.S. presidential election. Mr. Putin denied any meddling, but the Russian now has a new element in the Trump equation to think about.

Until now, Mr. Trump has let the Russian leader believe their dealings might be man-to-man. But by raising Russian interference in a U.S. election, Mr. Trump made clear to Vlad that he’ll be dealing with the President of all the American people. That sounds like a positive outcome.

Appeared in the July 8, 2017, print edition.

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