The international community is watching in anticipation as Donald Trump, five months into his presidency, holds his first meeting with the man seen as his rival for the title of “most powerful leader” on the planet, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their formal bilateral discussion late Friday is overshadowing the two-day gathering in Hamburg, Germany, of heads of state of the world’s 20 strongest economies.
The meeting is fraught with symbolism as Trump, still new to the world of international diplomacy, sits down with Putin, who came to power in what amounted to a Kremlin palace coup 17 years ago, and has a reputation for keeping negotiating partners off balance.
Students of Washington-Moscow relations point to striking parallels between the scheduled Hamburg talks and another great-power meeting 56 years earlier.
Berlin Wall followed JFK’s summit
“In June 1961, five months after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev proposed a summit in Vienna,” said William Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corporation, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“JFK’s advisers advised against it because it wasn’t well prepared, but Kennedy decided to go ahead anyway. He admitted later that Khrushchev ‘beat the hell’ out of him. Two months later the Berlin Wall began to rise,” Courtney told VOA. “Now did JFK’s weak performance in the summit have anything to do with the timing of building the Berlin Wall? We’ll never know.”
On the eve of the Hamburg meeting, Trump signaled his intent to speak to Putin about Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe and other world hotspots.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran,” Trump said Thursday in the Polish capital, which he visited before flying to Hamburg.
At a joint news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump was less forthcoming about another sensitive issue: whether Russia interfered in last November’s presidential election.
“I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries,” Trump said. “Nobody really knows for sure.”
Trump aides have said he might bring up the election-meddling issue, but is not likely to dwell on it.
“That’s a difficult conversation to have in your first face-to-face, and Russia knows this,” said Lauren Goodrich, senior Eurasia analyst at the Stratfor geopolitical intelligence group in Texas.
‘Master strategist’ Putin vs. ‘unpredictable’ Trump
While Trump is the relative neophyte going into Friday’s meeting, Goodrich said Putin is wary of his American counterpart, who often is unpredictable in an international setting.
“Putin is a master strategist. He outplays the majority of his opponents the majority of the time. He’s well rehearsed and practiced for every single scenario,” Goodrich said. “The problem is, I’ve never seen him come up against a counterpart as unpredictable as Trump, so I think that may throw Putin off his game a little bit.”
For Putin, simply being seen on the world stage alongside a U.S. president will be considered a success, Goodrich added. After being frozen out during the final years of the Obama presidency, Putin knows that a picture of him and Trump sitting together in friendship will send an important message to countries on Russia’s border — both friends and foes.
“It’s enough that Russia can shape its messaging with its border lands that, ‘Look, at least the United States and Russia are talking again, so we’re going to be able to figure out the world. The United States is not talking to you about the world; they’re talking to us about the world,'” Goodrich said. “That’s really important to Russia among its border lands, to show that it’s on the same par as the United States on kind of shaping the world, instead of the U.S. working within those border lands outside Russian influence.”
‘Tremendous pressure’ on Putin
The Stratfor analyst said comparing the Hamburg meeting to the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit may be excessive, for one critical reason: Putin is desperate for a win on the world stage to ease massive headaches at home.
“Putin is under tremendous pressure. He has so many domestic problems that he has to find some way of relieving the pressure outside Russia, because at home it’s becoming very dangerous for him and his system,” Goodrich said.
Historian Dan Mahaffee points to another big difference between the 1961 Vienna summit and the Putin-Trump conversation, for which a relatively brief time has been allotted.
More than half a century ago, “it was a different Cold War environment,” said Mahaffee, who is policy director at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. “It was a time of a divided Berlin, the threat of nuclear war between superpowers, and trying to lower the temperature to avoid imminent conflict.”
Mahaffee mused that Kennedy had less difficulty going into his meeting with Khrushchev than Trump has had in the midst of exaggerated media speculation ahead of his face-to-face meeting with Putin. In contrast to intense attention in Washington devoted to the investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence last November’s U.S. election, the historian said with a chuckle that for Kennedy, “it was [Chicago Mayor] Richard J. Daley, not Khrushchev, who helped him win the 1960 election.”