As they met with Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan, for the G-20 summit, British prime minister Theresa May and President Trump presented sharp contrasts in their public greeting of the Russian president.
According to the British government, May gave the Russian leader a cold reception on Friday and criticized Russia for “unacceptable behavior” during a 80-minute meeting that the Guardian newspaper described as “frosty.”
At an earlier press appearance, Trump praised his relationship with Putin, joked about possible Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election and bonded with the his Russian counterpart over criticism of journalism and “fake news.”
The dramatically different reactions to Putin by May and Trump belied the fact that the United States and Britain are historically two of the closest allies on the world stage. May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after he entered the White House in 2017; Trump was greeted in London with a lavish state banquet at Buckingham Palace last month.
But May and Trump have often had some distance between them on certain major geopolitical issues — perhaps none more obviously than Russia.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, shared two contrasting photographs of Putin, one with May and one with Trump, and said they were simply “all you need to know” about the two bilateral meetings.
May’s meeting with Putin was the first since the poisoning of the Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, last year. The alleged assassination attempt, which British authorities later traced back to Russian agents, did not kill its intended target, but British citizen Dawn Sturgess later died after being exposed to the nerve agent used in the attack, Novichok.
In a statement, May’s office said that the prime minister had told Putin that the poisoning was a “truly despicable act” and that the two suspects must “be brought to justice.”
Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning, a move that other allies followed. The United States also took action, expelling sixty Russian diplomats and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle.
Trump himself has said that he believes Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings. “Of course they shouldn’t do it,” Trump said during an interview with CBS News last year.
The United States and Russia are at odds on a wide variety of different foreign policy issues, including but not limited to Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela. Since Trump entered office in 2017, the United States has repeatedly slapped sanctions on Russian entities.
Still, the U.S. president has still tried to maintain a strong relationship with his Russian counterpart and has, in particular, repeatedly undermined the evidence that Moscow sought to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
Russian state media reported that during their private meeting in Osaka, Putin invited Trump to Moscow next year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Kremlin said Trump “responded very positively.”
The Russian president has repeatedly downplayed accusations that his government was involved in the assassination attempt on Skripal. In an interview with the Financial Times this week, Putin said that Skripal had already been punished for his crimes, but added that “treason” was the “gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished.”
Putin also suggested that Europe and the United States were undergoing a crisis of liberalism. “Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable,” Putin told the Financial Times.
May is due to step down as British prime minister in July, having resigned after a series of failed attempts to convince parliament to agree to her withdrawal agreement with the European Union.