What to expect from the Trump-Putin meeting
Nobody knows what will happen, of course. But Spencer Ackerman asked some former spies and investigators with longtime experience dealing with the KGB and its successor the FSB, which trained President Putin, to speculate. Here's a little bit of what they said:
Ahead of meeting the U.S. president in Hamburg, [Putin's] foreign ministry has said the agenda will concern everything from Syria to Ukraine to returning two intelligence complexes on U.S. soil – even to gay rights in Chechnya. Meanwhile, Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster has said there won’t be a “specific agenda” for discussion, beyond “whatever the president wants to talk about.” There is confusion on the U.S. side about whether McMaster’s Russia chief, the Putin skeptic Fiona Hill, will attend the meeting.
Putin, former spies say, is well-positioned to dominate the meeting. Whether he wants commitments from Trump on specific things or simply a grip-and-grin photo op, Putin stands a good chance of getting his way – provided he tells Trump to ignore the losers and the critics and portrays what Putin wants as how Trump gets the drop on them yet again.
“Trump is just about a sociopathic narcissist,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA interrogator and analyst. “That’s not to denounce him, just an assessment of the guy…. Fulsome praise, full of garbage, is a small price to pay to get what you want.”
To cultivate Trump, Carle said, “you praise and piss him off at the same time. You want to push his buttons to get him to do something reflexive.” That is, point Trump’s fury in the direction of what Putin can portray as a mutual enemy – even if it’s a traditional U.S. ally.
“What do they want? Say it’s eastern Ukraine. You continue to undermine the U.S. commitment and the need for NATO, and you do that by talking about what he thinks he understands: money and trade. You build upon the spurious line that Germany and NATO are free riders, bilking Americans out of money. ‘Why should Americans die for some Krauts?’ That plays in the Peoria that is Trump’s mind.”
“The truly scary part is Putin only has to say to Trump ‘you are right and the haters are wrong’ to manipulate him,” adds Naveed Jamali, a former undercover FBI double agent. The Russians, Jamali added, are “devious motherfuckers,” skilled at manipulating others into doing their bidding without recognizing it.
The last time Trump met with Russian dignitaries, he shared with them intelligence on the so-called Islamic State provided to the U.S. by Israel. This time, Trump’s briefers in the CIA may be more likely to obscure their sources of information while providing Trump with what he needs to know ahead of the economic summit, said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst – something which, in turn, may impact Putin’s goals for their meeting.
“I’d not look at it as an opportunity to squeeze secrets out of Trump but rather to [maneuver] U.S. policy,” Pillar said, whether on Ukraine, lifting Obama-era sanctions on Russia, or Syria. For that, Putin is likely to rely on “techniques of flattery.”
A test case for Russia came in Saudi Arabia, Jamali said. There, the Saudis threw Trump a massive party for the president’s first foreign trip, replete with nonstop flattery, a dance involving swords and a photo with a mysterious orb that garnered worldwide publicity. Weeks later, with Saudi Arabia in a massive regional dispute with Qatar, Trump openly backed the Saudi sideeven as his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called for an end to the conflict.
The Saudi Arabia visit might also provide a template for Russia for a different reason.
With Russia at the center of the scandal overhanging the Trump administration, no one interviewed for this story expected the Putin-Trump meeting to yield immediate deliverables or anything else that Trump’s critics can portray as a favor for Putin. But late Wednesday, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, floated a possible expansion of U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria, creating the possibility that the G20 meetup will yield a shifted course for the U.S. on terms favorable to Russia.
In the absence of a clear Russia policy from the young administration, Putin’s goal for the meeting is to maneuver that emerging policy in his favor – or, failing that, encourage the chaos that tends to characterize Trump’s foreign policies.
“Putin’s minimum objective will be to demonstrate that Russia is a co-equal power, which he can achieve with a simple handshake-and-smile photo,” said Evelyn Farkas, the Pentagon’s top Russia policy official in the Obama administration. Beyond that is for Trump to give a “verbal commitment to work toward returning the intelligence [facilities] shut down by Obama” or a similar pledge to “work to modify or eliminate sanctions on Russia.”
In Moscow, all this appears as the U.S. finally giving Russia its due.
Maybe Trump will surprise us. But I doubt it. The most likely scenario is that he'll say that he and Vlad have ushered in a new era of cooperation and good will because he will have been flattered into thinking that's the case. And that will buy him many plaudits from blind partisans who were Russia hawks just six months ago, right-wingers who just love a strongman no matter where he's from and lefties who want to believe that Trump is a serious peacemaker intent upon taking down the neoliberals who allegedly want permanent war with Russia.
We'll have to see. But Trump is a fool and Putin is not so I'm going to guess that Russia will likely come out of this meeting feeling strengthened. And maybe that's fine. Good feelings are good. It all depends on what comes next.
Update: It looks like the inexperienced oilman Rex Tillersonwill be the only one in the room with Trump, Putin and his very experienced foreign minister.
There will likely only be six people in the room when President Trump meets President Putin on Friday at the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
According to an official familiar with the meeting's planning, it will be Trump, Putin, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators.
What could go wrong?