For Trump, the meeting marked the fulfillment of a controversial promise he made early in the 2016 campaign to seek an improvement in relations with Moscow. Trump may claim a “win,” but the greater beneficiary is probably Putin, who seized this opportunity to “come in from the cold” after the sanctions and diplomatic isolation that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.
Trump bought the Syria deal at relatively low cost. Sanctions against Russia remain in place; the Russian diplomatic compounds that were seized Dec. 29 haven’t been returned. It was widely suspected that Trump’s advisers had discussed a removal of sanctions after he won the presidency; if any such agreement exists, it hasn’t been disclosed.
Trump opened the meeting by raising the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; whether this was a fuzzy pro-forma statement or a real protest isn’t clear. Putin is said to have denied any such interference, but his response wouldn’t be credible, no matter what he said. Ex-spies aren’t believable on the subject of covert actions. The decisive evidence on this subject of Russian meddling will come from special counsel Robert S. Mueller when he completes his investigation.
The Syria agreement is the most important “deliverable” from Friday’s meeting. Tillerson has been working on the details for weeks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The cease-fire in southwest Syria, negotiated with Jordan (and, unofficially, with Israel) was actually hatched about a week ago and kept on ice so that all sides could make sure it was being observed.
The stage is now set for other U.S.-Russia efforts to de-escalate the Syria conflict and begin to stabilize the country. For the Syrian opposition, Friday’s most important development was Tillerson’s announcement that President Bashar al-Assad will eventually leave power and that there will be a political transition away from the Assad family. Assad will probably resist, as may Iran. But if the United States and Russia are co-guarantors of this transition, it’s likely to move ahead.
Friday’s summit meeting also produced some useful dialogue about North Korea. Tillerson said that Trump has discussed curbing North Korea’s weapons programs with both Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping. There’s no accord on how to pressure Pyongyang — and indeed, some obvious disagreements. But at least there’s a public recognition of the seriousness of the problem — and of the shared interest of the United States, Russia and China in dealing with it.
Summits can sometimes be dangerous. Western politicians can make unwise concessions to autocratic leaders, as happened at Munich in 1938 and Yalta in 1945, with tragic consequences. Apart from his still-mysterious exchange with Putin about Russian meddling, Trump, embattled and unpopular though he is, doesn’t appear to have made such mistakes at Hamburg. Instead, this was a summit meeting that reminded us of the benefits of diplomacy.