Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were scheduled to meet for only about thirty minutes, but they remained closeted together for over two hours today on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the first face-to-face meeting of the two presidents, even longer than the ninety minutes that George W. Bush and Putin had during their initial meeting. After the marathon session ended, Vladimir Putin indicated that an entire range of topics—Ukraine, Syria, counterterrorism, cybersecurity and the question of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections—was covered. The tone was friendly from the outset—“it’s an honor to be with you,” Trump enthused as they first met—and the body language between the U.S. and Russian leaders throughout the G-20 meeting, displaying signs of friendly camaraderie, is in marked contrast to the often stiff and tense poses that characterized meetings between Putin and Barack Obama.
This suggests that in discussing what remain very contentious issues in the U.S.-Russia relationship, the two presidents took the position that major policy differences were not going to be personalized. What remains to be seen, however, is whether personal connections can overcome the considerable bureaucratic resistance on both sides to an improved relationship. Putin seemed to suggest that ongoing contact between the two heads of state is the best way to move the relationship forward.
To try and create the impression that the first direct encounter between the two leaders could lead to positive outcomes, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the United States and Russia had brokered a cease-fire in southwestern Syria, set to take effect next week, between U.S.-backed opposition groups and the Syrian government. Whether this agreement represents a new, substantive breakthrough in U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria is not yet apparent, since this agreement could go the way of past arrangements that Lavrov had negotiated with John Kerry, then secretary of state.