President Donald Trump’s decision to meet with Vladimir Putin this week when the two leaders are expected to be in Vietnam divided his aides, some of whom questioned the wisdom of such an encounter amid the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe and a steady stream of reports about Moscow’s manipulation of social media for propaganda purposes.
The meeting is set for the sidelines of an Asian economic summit in Da Nang, near the end of Trump’s marathon 13-day tour of Asia, the president told reporters on Air Force One.
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both view the meeting as worth the cost of the awkward optics, US officials told BuzzFeed News, but career diplomats inside the administration have come down on different sides.
Some White House officials also view the optics of the meeting with trepidation, and one aide discharged a series of expletives last month when this reporter told him that the Russians had made public the possibility of a meeting. “Moscow pulls this shit every time even though we haven’t agreed to shit. It’s outrageous,” the White House official fumed.
“There are people on the inside who don’t see any value in meeting with Putin,” said John Herbst, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council. “But the president’s advisers recognize his inclinations and realize they need to take them into account, so they’ve talked about being able to do things with Russia provided that Russia does things first.”
The concern among the government’s Russia experts is that there is little to gain from the meeting, particularly on the issue of Syria, where the US and Russia are backing opposing sides in a conflict that began as an uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Putin, these experts believe, isn’t serious about pressuring Assad into a political settlement so there is little to gain from a meeting.
“They think, as they did throughout 2016, that Russia is Lucy, the US is Charlie Brown, and Syria is the football,” one individual familiar with the deliberations told BuzzFeed News.
Tillerson, meanwhile, believes that the US can’t make progress on a deescalation and political solution in Syria without Russian cooperation, two US officials said. But he wants the US side to be prepared for a substantive discussion on other issues, including Ukraine and North Korea.
Tillerson’s position is generally supported by the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and in particular by Special Envoy Brett McGurk, who leads the anti-ISIS effort. Senior Middle East officials David Satterfield and Michael Ratney are also said to be supportive of the effort.
A senior State Department official, who was sympathetic to both arguments, said the Russians are necessary to restore the momentum behind the “Geneva process,” the UN-based format the West views as the best way to begin a political transition in Syria away from Assad. An alternative process, sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, has emerged in talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan. The US has attended the talks as a participant, but Russia is clearly the more influential presence.
“We have the issue of how we manage our militaries operating in close quarters in Syria, but just as important is we have the issue of how you migrate talks from the Astana process back to Geneva,” the senior official said. “That’s where the concern of Lucy and Charlie Brown comes from. The worry is that until we actually migrate this stuff to Geneva, the Russians are just trying to use the process to consolidate their military gains and their superiority.”
Trump told reporters while en route to Tokyo that the meeting with Putin could prove useful for his efforts to bring pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, a key focus of his trip.
“We want Putin's help on North Korea, and we'll be meeting with a lot of different leaders,” Trump said.
On Sunday, a senior administration official added that “Russia borders North Korea” and that Moscow has “obligations as a UN member to upholding UN Security Council resolutions” related to sanctions against Pyongyang.
While getting Russian support for the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea is important, Russia holds much more clout over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
The key objective of the meeting for the State Department’s Middle East team is forging an agreement on expanding the deescalation zones in Syria beyond the southwest of the country, US officials said. Besides efforts to reduce the levels of violence in Syria, the US side wants to get a firm commitment by Russia to support the Geneva political process.
One official acknowledged the faction at the State Department that doesn’t want to deal with Russia, but said it’s unclear how choosing not to engage will “move the ball forward.”
The first meeting between Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg went on for more than two hours before aides broke up the gathering. At the time, Trump said he pressed Putin about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, but the president has since called those allegations a “hoax.”
Typically, it would not be unusual for the presidents of Russia and the United States to meet on the sidelines of a regional forum where they are both present. But White House aides had hoped the Asia trip would provide a reprieve from the wall-to-wall coverage of the Russia investigation, a goal that is much more unlikely given the Putin meeting.
“In a normal world, a meeting of this nature would be ho-hum,” said Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine. “But things get dramatic when you talk about a Trump-Putin meeting for all the reasons in the headlines this past year. Trump’s strange affinity for the Kremlin makes his advisers nervous. And his meeting in Europe that was supposed to be short, but went on for two hours. That’s why this has become an issue.”