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Article / 13 July 2017 at 11:24 GMT

Trump got Syria deal with Russia at very little cost

Russia oil and gas expert
United Kingdom
  • Trump seems to have walked away from summit with all the goodies (pact on Syria)
  • Putin got little in return for enduring intense questioning on meddling in US election
  • Trump backed off from forming a working group with Russia on cybersecurity
  • Only true breakthrough was deal to create de-escalation zones in Syria
  • US and Russian positions on Ukraine seem to have toughened
  • US appoints Russia hawk Volker as US special envoy to Ukraine
Matryoshka dolls with Trump and Putin images
Matryoshka dolls. Putin had presumably hoped for a meeting of equals. Photo: Shutterstock

By Nadia Kazakova

The aftermath of the first meeting between the US and Russian presidents on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany on July 7 proved even more interesting that the meeting itself.

The American president Donald Trump seems to have walked away from the first Russia-US summit with all the goodies (a pact on Syria), while Russia's Vladimir Putin had to endure two hours of intense questioning (on Russia's meddling in the US election) and sizing up with little to show in return for his pains.

And, to add insult to injury, there have been also some – mildly – humiliating climb-downs and put-downs for the Russian side after the meeting as well.

Trump himself backed off from forming a working group with Russia on cybersecurity, which Putin said, in a post-summit news conference, had been agreed. 

Putin said he thought his replies to detailed questions on Russia's interference in the US elections had at least been taken into consideration if not agreed to. The White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was adamant in a Fox News interview that Trump "...absolutely did not believe the denial of the Russian President" about non-interference into the US elections.

In other words, Trump seems to have called Putin a liar.

The only true breakthrough was on Syria, where Russia has signed off on partitioning the country through creation of de-escalation zones. The Kremlin administration must have enjoyed the feeling of sitting at a table with other big boys, deciding on the fate of the subject country. There is not much else they get in return.

Putin must feel he is an equal partner in this geopolitical game of poker. It might soon prove to be an illusion as Russia's participation in Syria outlives its usefulness to other players and when the fate of the Assad government is sealed.

As for other topics of mutual interest, Trump seemed a touch dismissive of the prospects of co-operation. A TV interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on July 11 contained quite a lot of “buts” among the usual “good” and “tremendous” things.

In President Trump's own words: "... I think in a case like Syria where we can get together, do a ceasefire, and there are many other cases where getting together can be a very positive thing, but always Putin is going to want Russia and Trump is going to want the United States and that's the way it is."

"So, that [Syrian ceasefire] was a great thing that came out of that meeting. I think a lot of things came out of that meeting but I do believe it's important to have a dialogue and if you don't have a dialogue, it's a lot of problems for our country and for their country..."

There was a discussion about Ukraine during the summit, but neither side has been as eager for a break-through as in Syria. If nothing else, the American and Russian positions on Ukraine seem to have toughened. 

The US State Department has appointed Kurt Volker as US special envoy to Ukraine. Volker is known for calling for military confrontation with Russia in the aftermath of the Russian incursion in east Ukraine in August 2014.

Volker was appointed to the position just before the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg, and he went straight to Kiev with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on July 9.

Volker's new role might placate some of Trump critics who see him as soft on Russia. It could possibly win the US administration a more acceptable version of the new sanctions bill, keeping Trump's hands untied. On the other hand, Volker is highly unlikely to bring the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict any closer, given his uncompromising pro-Ukrainian stance.

Putin replied in his own way to the US move on Ukraine. During his final G20 news conference, he was just a step away from calling for a regime change in Kiev. He insisted that Russian and Ukrainian interests are fully allied, and it is only "today's" Ukrainian government which has different interests and is "trading in Russophobia". "This situation should end as soon as possible," he said.

For all the disappointment, Putin might, in the end, get a little something in return for his efforts in Hamburg. 

The Russians are eager to recover diplomatic property seized by the Obama administration in December 2016. The Trump team might also put a bit of effort into watering down the new anti-Russian sanctions bill in the US Congress. In the end, though, it might not amount to more than token gestures. 

Fundamentally the US president is ready to move on with Russia, though not on terms of a new era of cooperation, as the Putin administration would have hoped. Such partnership would be relegated to somewhere in the middle of a talk-to list on a need-to basis. 

As Trump put it: "We need dialogue with everybody."

G20 family photo
 G20 family photo. Source:

— Edited by John Acher

Nadia Kazakova is a Russian oil and gas specialist


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