There were six people in the room when the president of the United States met the president of Russia: two presidents, two foreign ministers, two translators — with no aides, no advisers, no experts. There was nothing prepared in advance: The U.S. national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said last week that there was “no specific agenda — it’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
A nearly empty room. A blank slate. The Russian-American relationship, which has always been atypical, has now become strange, even surreal. It is not even predictable, in the way that most diplomatic relationships are usually more or less predictable, because it is not driven by the geopolitical or economic interests of either Russians or Americans. It is driven, rather, by the personal interests of the two main players.
The actual agreements reached were underwhelming: an open channel of communication on Ukraine, whatever that means; a cease-fire in part of Syria, which could be hopeful but has been tried before; some new ambassadors. Far more important, as I say, were the personal stakes — and Russian President Vladimir Putin got most of what he wanted out of the meeting in the first few seconds. Outplaying President Trump at his own silly game, he waited for the American to offer his hand. Cameras clicked and flashed; minutes later, Russian websites had the photograph — a picture of Trump holding out his hand to a haughty Putin — on their home pages.
And that was the point. For the Russian leader, 99 percent of the value of this meeting was its use in domestic propaganda. On Russia’s Channel One news station, a talk-show host waiting for the meeting to conclude marveled at its length (more than two hours) and called it a sign that Trump considered Putin more important than any other leader there. Snide Twitter posts kept flashing on screen (“Trump is like a schoolboy sitting next to Putin”). As an undemocratic leader who presides over a rocky economy, Putin needs to offer his public some reason to support him. This was it: He is at the center of the world stage. He calls the shots. He is munificently offering solutions to problems — in Ukraine, in Syria, in “cybersecurity” — that he himself has helped to create.
But looking at it from Trump’s point of view, the meeting was also successful. In light of the ongoing FBI investigation, he had to raise the difficult question of Russian interference in the U.S. election, even though he was reluctant to admit there had been such a thing as recently as Thursday. But he managed it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointedly declared afterward that Trump had “pressed” the subject — and then dispensed with it: The two men wanted to move on and were not “re-litigating” the past. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that Trump had “accepted” Putin’s denial of interference as the truth. At the very least, the U.S. president can now tell himself that he doesn’t need to bring up that difficult subject again.
From Trump’s comments going back more than a decade, it seems that Trump also needed something else from Putin: acceptance. I’m not sure why this is true, or which part of Trump’s psychological profile explains it. But he has long admired the Russian dictator, whom he has praised repeatedly and never criticized. “It’s an honor to meet you,” he said at the first encounter. Maybe it’s the oligarchic style represented by Putin, who used money to get political power and then used political power to make money, and a lot more money than Trump; maybe it’s the way Putin also used his office to empower his friends and family, something Trump does, too. From Tillerson’s remarks, it sounds like Trump got what he was looking for. There was “positive chemistry” between the two men, he said: “Neither one of them wanted to stop.” At one point, Melania Trump was sent in to break this love-fest up.
So there it is: Both men got what they wanted. Bragging rights for Putin; a new friend for Trump. As for the rest of us — it doesn’t matter what we think. In this relationship, only two people matter.