Trump Avoids Putin Showdown Over Ukraine With G-20 Snub

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s cancellation of a meeting with Vladimir Putin lets him show disapproval over Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships last week while avoiding the awkward task of delivering a tough message in person.

Trump announced his decision via Twitter less than an hour after departing Washington for Argentina, where he and Putin were to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit this weekend. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump made the decision after being briefed mid-air on the Ukraine incident. 

Trump Avoids Putin Showdown Over Ukraine With G-20 Snub

The move spares Trump from a potential firestorm of criticism in Washington like the one he faced after his last encounter with Putin. In remarks to reporters following a July meeting in Helsinki, he appeared to give more credence to Putin’s denials about Russian interference in the 2016 election than to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment -- prompting sharp rebukes from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“Since the Ukrainians had asked Trump to deliver a tough message to Putin, the president had every reason to go ahead with the meeting,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union. “You have to think his advisers don’t have much confidence in his ability to stand firm.”

Senior officials in the Russian delegation to Buenos Aires appeared taken aback by the snub. One described it as “really bad.” But they were reluctant to elaborate on whether the move could augur fresh U.S. sanctions on Russia.

“Trying to predict what Trump will do next is like reading tea leaves,” said another official. Putin is due to arrive in Argentina Friday morning.

Trump’s goals for the meeting were always vague, and the timing of his decision -- four days after Russia captured three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea -- was also impossible to ignore. Earlier Thursday, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s plans for a Moscow real estate project and agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The charges don’t speak directly to possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, but hint that Trump tried to cover up his business interests in Russia. Sitting down with Putin just days after Cohen entered his plea would have exposed Trump to even more criticism.

“This seems quite transparently driven by the Mueller investigation and Cohen’s testimony today,” said Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Like in previous instances, the optics of Trump getting chummy with Putin -- and I don’t think he can restrain himself -- would only magnify all the suspicions.”

Rohac said he welcomed the cancellation. “The less interaction with Putin this president has, the better.”

The cancellation marks the second snub by Trump in less than a month after he decided against meeting Putin in Paris, where they were both attending World War One commemorations. It sets back Russian hopes for rebuilding ties that have worsened despite Trump’s pledges to improve them. Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow, said the Kremlin will take offense. “Ukraine will be punished” for being given as the reason the meeting was called off, he said.

While the benefits of a meeting for Trump were never especially clear, the Russian side had far more to gain. In an interview Thursday, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia was looking for a U.S. commitment to prevent the collapse of arms control agreements, after Trump said the U.S. planned to withdraw from a landmark 1987 treaty banning the deployment of intermediate-range missiles on land.

Further pressure

The Kremlin regrets Trump’s decision but is ready to maintain contacts with his administration, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by text message. It does mean talks on issues that go beyond the two countries could be delayed indefinitely, he added.

Even as the Kremlin insists it wasn’t bothered by the abrupt move, Trump’s cancellation deals a blow to Putin’s efforts at home and abroad to show he’s not isolated. And it put in him in the unusual position of appearing weak.

“Putin cannot back down now to look humiliated by Trump,” Frolov said. Just what the Kremlin will do isn’t clear, but further pressure could be applied to Ukrainian shipping and the sailors that Russia captured in the recent skirmish.

Publicly, Russian officials and state media sought to paint Trump as the loser.

“This is a missed opportunity not for Putin but for Trump -- to discuss controversial issues and demonstrate the independence of his foreign policy,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said on Facebook.

Future prospects

Speaking aboard Air Force One, Sanders said the president made the decision after discussing the situation in Ukraine with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser John Bolton. She added she didn’t know if Trump and Putin had spoken but said that there was contact about the decision between the two governments.

The question now is whether Putin and Trump meet at some point in the future, or if the decision marks a formal break in ties that both leaders had said they wanted to improve. Until Trump’s tweet, officials had seemed confident the fallout from the Ukraine crisis would be contained, with U.S. and European leaders making clear no new sanctions were being considered.

Alexander Dynkin, president of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a state-run think tank in Moscow that advises the Kremlin on foreign policy, signaled that a cancellation would mark the end of long-sputtering efforts to improve ties.

“If there is no meeting, then probably we will have to stop any interaction with the current administration,” Dynkin said.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump opened the door to another meeting once the Ukraine tensions fade: “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.