By ADRIAN MORROW
Thursday, November 9, 2017
WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will hold a tête-à-tête later this week, even as the investigation into possible collusion between the U.S. President's campaign team and the Kremlin heats up.
The two presidents plan to sit down on the sidelines of the AsiaPacific Economic Co-operation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, Mr. Putin's spokesman told reporters Wednesday. Mr. Trump is currently on a 12-day swing through Asia, where he has visited Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
The talks come as Mr. Trump calls on Moscow to do more to help rein in North Korea and takes a hard line on Iran, and amid persistent questions over the future of Syria as the Islamic State unravels.
Ahead of the summit, Mr. Putin - whose regime has jailed dissidents, passed homophobic laws and interfered in last year's U.S. election - is attempting to cast himself as a globalist statesman in contrast with Mr. Trump's inward-looking "America first" ideology. In an op-ed distributed to media Wednesday, Mr. Putin called for an Asia-Pacific free-trade zone and more international infrastructure projects in the region.
"Russia has a stake in the successful future of the Asia-Pacific region, and in promoting sustainable and comprehensive growth throughout its entire territory," Mr. Putin wrote. "We believe that effective economic integration based on the principles of openness, mutual benefit and the universal rules of the World Trade Organization is the primary means of achieving this goal."
Whether the two leaders can achieve much at all is an open question. The scrutiny of contacts by Mr. Trump's associates with the Russian government ahead of the election make it politically difficult for him to give Mr. Putin anything.
And without some concession from the United States - such as a loosening of the sanctions levied on Russia for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine - it is unlikely Moscow will do Washington any favours.
"The big question about this meeting isn't awkwardness. It's uncertainty - neither side has much basis for confidence that it'll be possible to go beyond the current relationship," Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large to the countries of the former Soviet Union, wrote in an e-mail.
"Is Putin really prepared to change course on Ukraine? Does he have anything to offer on North Korea? Is there any reason for him to put his relationship with Iran at risk?" The pair clearly want a closer relationship for two of the world's top rivals. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump lauded Mr. Putin as a strong leader. And their previous meeting, at a Group of 20 summit in Germany in July, ran for more than two hours - more than twice as long as it was supposed to. That evening, Mr. Trump pulled Mr. Putin aside during a group dinner with other world leaders to chat further, with only a Kremlin interpreter in on the conversation.
This chumminess reportedly makes even Mr. Trump's aides uneasy: The Buzzfeed news website, citing unnamed administration sources, reported this week that some diplomats and White House staffers would rather the President not sit down privately with Mr. Putin at all.
The optics are particularly fraught after two weeks of embarrassing Russia revelations for the administration. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller charged former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and Mr. Manafort's business associate Rick Gates for failing to register as lobbyists for pro-Putin politicians in Ukraine and laundering millions of dollars from them.
George Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trump's campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about discussions with Kremlin intermediaries. And this past weekend, leaked documents showed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has done business with Mr. Putin's son-in-law.
Mr. Mueller is investigating Russia's efforts to tip the 2016 election to Mr. Trump by hacking embarrassing internal Democratic Party e-mails, buying ads on Facebook and unleashing armies of bots on Twitter.
Mr. Trump's top demand to Russia, laid out in his Tuesday speech to South Korea's parliament, is to crank up the pressure on North Korea over its rapidly developing nuclear program. Russia shares a border with the hermit kingdom, and could put the squeeze on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by helping to choke off trade.
The agenda is also likely to include Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting a pro-western government, and Syria, where the Russian ally Bashar al-Assad is competing with opposition groups to control territory vacated by retreating Islamic State forces. Mr. Trump has also accused Iran of violating its agreement not to develop nuclear weapons, even as Tehran and Moscow have moved closer together, signing an energy deal last week.
Mark Simakovsky, a former U.S. Defence Department official who worked on the Ukraine file, said that even if neither side expects to win any concrete victories in the meeting, simply building a relationship will be important to them.
"Putin's priority is to show that all roads lead to Moscow on critical international issues," from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to East Asia, said Mr. Simakovsky, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The Russian President also appears to be selling his country as an alternative to the United States, as Mr. Trump muses about tearing up trade deals and dialling back the United States' international role.
In his op-ed, Mr. Putin endorses the WTO, which Mr. Trump has slammed, and calls for a free-trade deal that sounds similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Washington backed out of - albeit one that would include China and Russia.
Mr. Simakovsky said Russia has been trying to set itself up as a power player in a multipolar world, but has been late to the game compared with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, in any event, doesn't have Beijing's economic or demographic heft. Still, that won't stop Mr. Putin from trying.
"Russia is taking advantage of this perception of U.S. decline, of mistrust and disengagement and a vacuum," he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump steps out of Marine One in Seoul on Wednesday, part of his 12-day trip through Asia. His top demand to Russia, laid out in a Tuesday speech, is to crank up pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program.
DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit Beijing's Forbidden City with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday.