The much anticipated (in Russia) Putin-Trump November 11 meeting in Paris, for which the ground had been laid by the visit to Moscow of US NSA Bolton in October (Review 10/18), was postponed to the margins of the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires (November 29-December 1), apparently to avoid deflection of focus from the World War I Armistice commemoration events. Two developments later in the month – one domestic and one external – eventually ensured that the meeting did not take place.
Domestically, the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia got fresh momentum through new revelations from former Trump attorney Cohen about Candidate Trump’s investment intentions in Russia. Externally, a furore was created on November 25 by Russia’s forcible detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels, which were attempting to pass through the Kerch straits to a Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian version was that they had notified the Russians about the transit (as required under a bilateral agreement of 2003). The Russians denied this and alleged that the Ukrainian ships had ignored warnings and indulged in dangerous manoeuvres with the Russian naval vessels sent out to stop them. Eventually the Russian ships opened fire, wounding three Ukrainian sailors and damaging the ships. One account is that a Russian ship rammed into a Ukrainian tugboat. The Ukrainian ships were detained and the sailors taken into Russian custody.
The US, NATO, EU and G7 criticized the Russian action and called on Russia to return the Ukrainian vessels and crew members and restore freedom of passage through the Kerch strait. They reiterated non-recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea.
President Trump initially insisted that his meeting with President Putin would still go ahead. He only tweeted his decision to call off the meeting on November 28, while on his way to Buenos Aires. Significantly, he did not justify his decision on Russian aggression or its violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He merely said that he was cancelling the meeting, since the ships and sailors had not been returned to Ukraine. In a subsequent tweet, he said he looked forward to a meaningful meeting "as soon as this situation is resolved".
Conspiracy theorists (and not only in Russia) speculated whether the timing of the Trump attorney’s revelations and of the Ukrainian “provocation” were influenced by the impending Trump-Putin meeting. In the case of Ukraine, the friction could help to shore up President Poroshenko’s flagging popularity. Opinion was also divided on whether the domestic or the Ukrainian development was the more influential factor in President Trump’s decision to call off the meeting. The speculations were not quelled by the White House Press Secretary’s statement immediately after President Trump’s decision that the "Russian witch hunt hoax" was undermining US-Russia relations, though she insisted (as did President Trump) that the meeting cancellation was prompted solely by the Ukraine situation.
It may also be noted that, even while criticizing Russian action, the State Department and the EU called on both Russia and Ukraine to exercise restraint – a formulation that led Foreign Minister Lavrov to claim that they recognized Ukraine’s provocative role. On this point, these statements resembled China’s official statement, which called on all sides “to show restraint, prevent escalation, and reach consensus through dialogue and … settle differences". The US Secretary of State went further in his statement, urging Presidents Poroshenko and Putin to engage directly to resolve this situation and reiterating US support for the Normandy Four format (of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) – a format which, as both Europeans and Russians now openly say, was undermined precisely by the US when President Trump appointed Kurt Volker as his Special Envoy for Ukraine. The Russians masked their obvious disappointment at the cancellation of the meeting with stoic resignation, with FM Lavrov telling the Russian media in Buenos Aires that “love cannot be forced” and that if domestic pressures and those from “Russia-haters” like Ukraine and its sponsors “prevent the US President from building a normal relationship with the Russian President …. we will wait for another opportunity”.
Meanwhile, there were other signs of reduced confrontation. The US had been threatening Russia with substantial new sanctions, if it did not take steps to prove it has ended its chemical weapons programme, in accordance with a US legislation after the alleged nerve agent attack on former Russian spy, Skripal, in England in March. The sanctions eventually did not materialize. The strong rhetoric after the Kerch straits incident has also not led to new sanctions. Presidents Putin and Trump apparently exchanged pleasantries in Paris, besides briefly discussing (as per President Putin) crude oil prices, economic growth and regional issues. During President Putin’s visit to Singapore, he had pull-aside meetings (probably separate) with Vice-President Pence and US NSA Bolton. In early-November, a State Department statement recognized Russia’s role in persuading the Syrian government to permit humanitarian assistance to reach refugee camps in Rukban (in the al-Tanf enclave controlled by US special forces).
November 29, 2018