President Donald Trump described his G20 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “excellent.” As the media scrambled to slate Trump for cosying up to Putin, it’s worth asking, does friendly rhetoric change anything?
Putin and Trump talked for an hour and a half on Friday, in a meeting Trump described as “interesting” and “excellent.” The Kremlin echoed the sentiment, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling the chat “intensive,” and promising to officially invite Trump to Moscow for World War II Victory celebrations next year.
Both presidents certainly seemed comfortable in each other’s presence, with Trump jokingly wagging his finger at the Russian leader with the instruction “don’t meddle in the elections please,” and the pair toasting each other at dinner later that evening.
Predictably, American politicians and pundits went into overdrive. “He called the Russian president by his first name!” CNN’s Chris Cuomo gasped. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) claimed that Trump was “basically giving Putin a green light to interfere in 2020,” and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul called the encounter “disappointing but no longer shocking.”
Pundits calling out collusion seemed to have forgotten the outcome of last year’s Helsinki summit. Then, like now, Trump heralded his meeting with Putin as “great,” and said that both leaders “got along very well.” Again, the media flipped with Trump for “believing Putin’s word” on election meddling, and castigated the president for “kowtowing to the Kremlin,” as the Washington Post put it.
But did things go better between the two countries?
Trump returned home and announced that he had mis-spoken, and that he did in fact trust the assessment of (some of) the US intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. A month later, Washington imposed a ban on arms sales, US government credit, and exports of national-security-sensitive goods to Russia.
The Trump Administration also continued its policy of pounding Russia with economic sanctions. Three months before this year’s G20 summit, Washington sanctioned Moscow over a standoff with Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait near Crimea last November. Just one month ago, the US sanctioned a group of Russian individuals over alleged human rights abuses.
Moreover, while CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared that the “Russians must be high-fiving each other” following the Helsinki summit, Trump followed the meeting up by discussing the possibility of building a new, permanent US military base in Poland to counter alleged ‘Russian aggression.’ With the planned base still a bone of contention between Washington, Moscow, and Warsaw, Trump also set the stage for this year’s Osaka meeting by inking a $414 million arms deal with Poland in February and announcing the deployment of 1,000 troops to the Eastern European country earlier this month. Hardly cause for cheer in the Kremlin.
Up to the present day, Trump has continued to pursue a business-as-usual policy of aggressive anti-Russia maneuvers. The US’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty this year only deepened the rift between Washington and Moscow, and raised fears of another Cold War-style arms race between the two superpowers.
With an agenda featuring arms control, trade and, according to Trump, “a little protectionism,” both leaders had a lot to talk about on Friday, and limited time in which to do so. As for outcomes, we will have to wait and see if actions line up with words.