Anne Applebaum on Trump-Putin Meeting
9 July, 2017

It was a long-awaited encounter and it proved just as controversial as everyone expected. But, most of all, U.S. President Donald Trump's first in-person meeting with his Russian counterpart was unconventional, says Anne Applebaum, a columnist at The Washington Post.

In his second presidential trip to Europe, Trump met with Russian President Vladmir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the two discussed subjects ranging from Ukraine and Syria to cyber security in the July 8 meeting. Trump also reportedly raised Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election last fall, the subject of an ongoing investigation in Washington. Putin, for his part, denied any involvement, and Trump seemed reassured.

To Applebaum, the meeting's format defied convention, with only the two presidents, their foreign secretaries, and translators in attendance. There were no notetakers, and so there is no written record or alternative take on what took place in the talks.

Moscow seems pleased. The Russian state press has homed in on the meeting's duration — over two hours — and the subsequent photo-ops as signs of Putin's importance.

To discuss the Trump-Putin meeting, Hromadske sat down with Anne Applebaum, a regular commentator on Eastern European and Trans-Atlantic affairs.

Photo credit: STEFFEN KUGLER

So Anne, there was the long awaited meeting between the Russian and American presidents. What is your take on it?

Anne Applebaum: It was a very strange meeting and it was strange for a number of reasons. Normally, at such a meeting, you would have lots of aides and advisors and people taking notes. This was just Putin and just Trump, and the two foreign secretaries, and translators. Therefore, of course we have to rely on what [Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei] Lavrov and Tillerson say about the meeting. We have no back-up, we have no other record of what actually happened. So that already makes it a strange encounter. The even stranger thing about it was that it became pretty clear as the meeting went on and in the context of what went on after it, what happened, what was really important for both of the leaders was their own interests. Neither one of them was really there representing Russia or America. They were both...Putin was representing himself, what he was really interested in and what was important for him for this meeting was the photograph, the photograph of Trump holding out his hand for him, the fact that the meeting was very long, and therefore, proving that he was important. And you could actually see this importance with Trump and [with] Putin showing himself on the world stage surrounded by other important leaders, being treated as such an important person by the US President. You could already see it reflected in Russian media even as the meeting was happening. I turned on Channel1 just to watch it and you see already people saying, "It was such a long meeting, this means our president is very important," and so on and so on.

Photo credit: STEFFEN KUGLER

So the point of the meeting for Putin wasn’t the results. The point was that he needed to show himself as a great figure. Actually, for Trump there is a similar issue. Trump needed to do two things: one, he wanted to show that he had brought up this issue of US election meddling [by Russia] and, second, put it to rest. And it looked like he did that. He apparently said something, or according to Tillerson he did. And according Lavrov, he accepted Putin’s explanation that they didn’t do it and they moved on. So, as far as Trump’s concerned, that story is now over at least, in the international arena. There is, of course, an ongoing investigation, but he pushed that issue to the side. Secondly, it seems like he needed some kind of approval or acceptance or friendship with Putin. Why he needs that, I really don't know. But he's been saying it for a long time. He's been talking a lot for many years about how he wants Putin to be his friend. He said that in a tweet once. He wants some kind of relationship. So now he's got that. So from his point of view the meeting was a great success, whether it was good for the United States or good for Europe or Ukraine — that's a completely different question.

From what Secretary Tillerson and even Lavrov said, they discussed Ukraine, Syria, and cyber attacks. It was written that they have a different stance on the climate accord. So if you can speak about effects, what could they be?

Anne Applebaum: We were afraid that Trump would immediately make some big concession of Ukraine, but fortunately he didn't. But essentially nothing was done, some kind of new channel of communication was set up, that's all that was said. On Syria, they talked about a ceasefire. That's very nice but ceasefires have been tried before in Syria, so they haven't come to anything. So we'll have to see whether that matters. On cyber security, there was a very peculiar set of comments about working together. I mean, as far as we know, Russia is a really malign actor inside the United States, but also inside other countries. Not only seeking to steal political material but also positioning itself also to possibly conduct cyber attacks on power plants and other kinds of sort of economic and security facilities. So, I'm not sure what we're agreeing about. The main thing we need to do is persuade Russia to stop, and none of that was said. So, these were very, very broadly sketched out noises. There was no concrete achievement that you can point to.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Chen Ou Yang and Eilish Hart