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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Russia & US: Face to face at G20

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the G-20 Summit in Japan; talks between the two will be under great scrutiny.

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News Desk |

US President Donald Trump on Friday hailed his “very, very good relationship” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the G20 meeting. Talking to the Financial Times before the meeting, Putin stated that the world has significantly changed since his last discussion with Trump – and unfortunately not in a better way.

“I would cautiously say the situation has not changed for the better, but I remain optimistic to a certain extent. But, to put it bluntly, the situation has definitely become more dramatic and explosive,” he said.

“It’s a great honour to be with President Putin,” said Trump, who last held face-to-face talks with the Russian leader in Helsinki in 2018.

“We have a very, very good relationship,” Trump said.

The keenly awaited meeting between the pair has been overshadowed by a probe into Trump’s relations with Russia and the controversy that erupted the last time he held talks with the Kremlin leader.

First meeting post-Mueller report

A major probe led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller found there was an organized Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election won by Trump. It found contacts between Russian operatives and Trump’s election campaign, but no evidence of a joint plot. Trump has characterized Mueller’s findings as a complete exoneration.

However, he remains under fire from opponents for what they say is his consistently opaque relationship with Putin. In Helsinki last year, Trump refused at a joint press conference with Putin to criticize Russian interference in the 2016 election and said that he believed the Russian leader’s denials.

The pair have spoken by phone since the release of the Mueller report, with Trump notably leaving the media apoplectic in May when he announced that he discussed the “Russia hoax” and the Democrats’ “witch hunt” against him with Putin during an hour-long call.

The Osaka meeting, is their first face-to-face talk since Trump was cleared of “collusion” with Russian officials to win the 2016 election — a theory which preoccupied the media and opposition for more than two years. Journalists will likely be watching Trump closely for any ‘cues’ that he is somehow still secretly beholden to his Russian counterpart.

Asked before travelling to Japan about the planned talks, Trump told reporters the content of the discussions is “none of your business”.

“I’ll have a very good conversation with him,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “What I say to him is none of your business.”

Iran tensions spiking

The meeting comes at a critical moment as tensions between the US and Iran reach new heights. Trump has threatened Iran with “obliteration” twice in the past week. Washington had earlier blamed Tehran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, but even US allies expressed doubts over the claim. Trump also considered a militarily response to the downing of an American drone by Tehran, but backed away from a planned strike at the last minute.

Read more: Recap of US-Iran conflict: How it worsened during Trump presidency

Moscow officials have warned against demonizing Iran, Russia’s “ally and partner” in the region and Putin is likely to advise Trump to keep a cool head and prevent tensions from rising any further. He will also likely argue against Washington’s pressuring of Tehran with new rounds of economic sanctions.

Arms control

The two leaders dedicated a significant chunk of their talks to the issue of arms control. Trump floated the idea of a “new nuclear agreement” with Russia in May, having earlier pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had been a linchpin of European security for decades. Both sides had repeatedly accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement.

Arms control talks could be given new impetus by Tim Morrison, a national security council arms control expert who is set to replace Trump’s top Russia advisor Fiona Hill after she leaves her post at the end of the month.

Morrison’s arrival doesn’t necessarily bode well for improved relations between Moscow and Washington, however. The nuclear weapons expert is known to be a hardliner and close ally of top administration hawk, National Security Advisor John Bolton.

New sanctions?

The latest US sanctions on Russia were imposed in May 2019, but with the two countries not exactly enjoying friendly relations, the threat of new measures is always looming. The US congress has been contemplating imposing sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline as a rebuke to EU countries like Germany that have supported the multi-billionaire dollar project as Washington tries to pressure them to abandon Russian energy in favor of more expensive US liquefied natural gas exports.

Read more: Trump signs Russia sanctions bill, but spits at it

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month that if Trump is sincere about wanting to “get along with Russia” then the US should not impose new sanctions.

The two will also likely discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, stability in Ukraine and recent US efforts to overthrow the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, which Moscow has also railed against.

Trade war with China (and rest of the world)

The shifts in global economic trade climate dictated by Trump’s ‘America First’ policy and dominated by the ongoing friction in Sino-US relations will also likely be discussed. Since Trump took office, he made it his mission to fix the ‘unfair’ trade deficits with traditional trading partners, including the European Union, Mexico, Canada, and especially China.

To pressure China into compliance, the US has imposed numerous rounds of tariffs on more than $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. Beijing retaliated with tariffs on $110 billion of US goods, accusing the US of violating World Trade Organization (WTO) free trade practices. Despite numerous rounds of negotiations, ahead of the summit Trump once again warned that he is willing to impose even more tariffs unless Beijing yields to US trade demands.

Read more: US-China trade standoff to effect global economy

In addition to China, Trump has been engaging India with his coercive diplomacy, as trade tensions between the two countries continue to simmer. In June, Trump ended the preferential trade status for India, to force New Delhi to open the country’s massive market under terms most suited for the US.

Russia, which is also concerned with US protectionism, will seek a common global trade consensus at the G20, to work out some “general rules that everyone would follow,” at a time when Washington seems to be taking on the entire world.