Article / 03 May 2017 at 13:30 GMT

Putin needs to accept new rules of the game

Russia oil and gas expert
United Kingdom
  • May 2 phone call between Trump and Putin illuminates dynamics of relationship
  • Notion that Trump wants a compromise with Moscow sounds like wishful thinking
  • Reported plan for face-to-face meeting in late May seems to have failed
  • Man-to-man talks apparently need to wait until G20 summit in Germany in July
  • US plan for Syria would create unofficial safe zones, meaning partitioning
  • Russia's job would be to talk Assad into it or to step back and allow it
  • If there is a Trump-Putin meeting in July, it would be on Western terms
  • For Putin it looks like an international upset
Vladimir Putin
 Russian President Vladimir Putin faces changed rules in the 
geopolitical game. Photo: Shutterstock

By Nadia Kazakova

There are phone conversations and there are phone conversations. The one between President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump on May 2 has been analysed perhaps more than any other phone call, for more reasons than one.

As usual, there are conflicting accounts on who initiated the call. It is important as it shows who is in the driver's seat of the relationship. The Wall Street Journal said Putin asked for the call, the Russian Kommersant Daily said Trump called Putin.

Unlike in his very early days, Trump might now be more versed in the intricacies of international diplomacy – it's an old power game. So it sounds implausible that — as Kommersant Daily put it — “by deciding to call his Russian colleague and to discuss conflict in Syria and situation around North Korea, Donald Trump has demonstrated his willingness to find a compromise with Moscow.” That sounds like wishful thinking on the Russian side.

A week before the call, the same Kommersant Daily ran an exclusive report on the apparent preparations for the first face-to-face meeting between the presidents in late May, when Trump will travel to Europe to the Nato and G7 summits in Belgium and Italy. According to Kommersant, President Trump would “pop out” to a third country to meet President Putin.

If there was an attempt to arrange such a meeting, most likely by the eager Russian side, it must have failed. The man-to-man talks would need to wait, possibly until the G20 summit in Germany in July. Again, Kommersant said that such a meeting was agreed during the May 2 call, while the Wall Street Journal said there was no agreement to meet at that time.

The WSJ's assessment of the situation seems closer to reality. 

After the US missile strike in Syria in early April, the US administration ramped up pressure on Moscow. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson must have delivered the American plan on Syria to Putin on April 12. The first step would be to create unofficial safe zones in Syria.

In other words, it would be a partitioning of Syria, and Russia would have to take responsibility for talking the Assad regime into it or stepping back and letting it happen anyway, without Assad. Either way, it is not a pleasant choice for the Kremlin, as the tables have turned decisively. The US is back with a bang in the region, and there might not be much space left for a meddling and inflexible Russia.

If it is a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer to the Kremlin, then there is nothing really to discuss at one-to-one summits either in May or July. If there is a meeting in July, it would be on Western terms. German chancellor Angela Merkel must have rammed that idea home when she met Putin in Sochi. The meeting would be on her turf, and the big boys and girls of G7 would now set the rules.

For Putin it is just an international upset. Throughout his current term in office, he has built his domestic image on the back of successful conquests abroad. With the economy stagnant, a retreat from Syria or east Ukraine would be politically very painful. While the Russian media might put the desired spin on events for the public, the political and business elite would be much harder to misguide.

They probably care little about either Syria or Ukraine and want a horse-riding winner for their leader, not a junior negotiating partner who has misjudged his hand so badly.

Donald Trump
 The new showman in town. Photo: Shutterstock

— Edited by John Acher

Nadia Kazakova is a specialist on Russia, particularly the oil and gas sector

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