By Margaret Talev and Toluse Olorunnipa
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold their first meeting as heads of state during the Group of 20 summit next week in Hamburg.
The first in-person meeting of the two men since Trump took office in January will come as relations between the countries are at their lowest in decades. Disputes between the former Cold War rivals continue to simmer over the war in Syria, Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, U.S. sanctions and investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials.
White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who announced the meeting Thursday, declined to say whether Trump would raise the issue of Russian interference in last year’s election when the two leaders meet. He said there was no specific agenda yet set.
McMaster said the Trump administration is focusing its relations with Russia on simultaneously confronting Putin’s destabilizing behavior, whether through incursions in nearby countries such as Ukraine or political subversion of the U.S. and its allies, and nurturing areas of cooperation, such a combating Islamic extremists.
Trump also will use the annual Group of 20 summit of leaders of major economies for meetings with at least eight other foreign leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Congressional lawmakers are seeking to solidify sanctions against Russia in the face of apparent resistance from the White House, and as Russia’s support for the Syrian regime exacerbates tensions with the U.S. and other nations.
“Russia is a major power and it can play a constructive or a not-constructive role,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a State Department official in the Obama administration and deputy director of the Europe Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There remains that desire for an improved relationship.”
There will be an expectation from the meeting that Russia will offer some assurances of more cooperation, Rathke said. “What is Russia willing to do that would merit the attention of a formal, bilateral meeting?” he said. “The Europeans are watching to see what happens.” While Trump’s administration is dealing with a lot of Russia issues, there is “not a Russia policy yet.”
Various members of Trump’s government have taken different approaches to Russia, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley often standing out with the most assertive language.
“Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people,” Haley said Tuesday on Twitter after the White House said it saw signs that the Syrian regime was preparing a chemical weapons attack.
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For his part, Trump has generally taken a more conciliatory approach to the Kremlin, and has been reluctant to acknowledge the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the presidential election in an attempt to benefit him. At Putin’s request, Trump welcomed Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the Oval Office on May 10, the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the probe of Russian election meddling.
Trump and the two Russian officials were photographed smiling by a state-owned Russian news agency.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the FBI investigation of the Russian election meddling, is also now examining Trump’s decision to dismiss Comey.
The Trump administration has not backed efforts in Congress to impose new sanctions on Russia for election meddling and codify existing sanctions over Russian aggression in Ukraine.