President Donald Trump plans to meet with world leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina this week, including with the heads of Japan, Germany, and China. But there’s one meeting he may cancel — a chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday, Trump said he might scrap the meeting over Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian ships in a vital waterway two days earlier.
The incident, in which Russian vessels rammed into and shot at Ukrainian warships, seriously injured at least six of Kiev’s sailors.
“Maybe I won’t even have the meeting,” Trump said, adding that he would wait for a “full report” about the altercation before making his decision. It’s a bit of a reversal for the president, who on Monday failed to blame Russia for the incident during an interview with reporters.
While Trump didn’t fully commit to trashing the Putin reunion, his comments are still striking — although some experts don’t really think he’s sincere.
“I think this statement is a way for Trump to offer at least some reaction to the incident in the Kerch Strait, but not going so far as to release an official statement condemning the incident,” Rachel Rizzo, an expert on European affairs expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “Saying he may or may not meet with Putin is an empty threat. Of course he’ll meet with him.”
Why snubbing Putin would be new for Trump
There’s good reason to be skeptical of Trump’s comments.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has tried to improve relations between Washington and Moscow and has rejected multiple opportunities to blame Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. His administration has taken stronger action against the Kremlin, however, and imposed sanctions on Russia over the attempted murder of a Soviet spy living in the UK earlier this year.
But snubbing Putin over the Kerch Strait imbroglio would arguably prove Trump’s strongest move against Russia yet.
At the last G20 summit in July 2017, Trump met with his Russian counterpart twice. In their first meeting, Trump bought Putin’s denials that Moscow tried to sway the 2016 US presidential vote, even though the US intelligence community assessed that it had. And in an originally undisclosed second encounter during dinner, Trump and Putin spoke for about an hour with only Moscow’s translator present. It’s still unknown what the leaders said to each other during that meeting.
For Trump to potentially turn from friend to foe in a year would show that he — and not just his administration — wants to hold Russia accountable for its actions. It’d be out of character for Trump, and that’s exactly why it’s so noteworthy.