Trump Prepares For First Meeting With Putin Since Taking Office President Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution says he hopes there will be a serious tone on both sides, and modest expectations.

Trump Prepares For First Meeting With Putin Since Taking Office

Trump Prepares For First Meeting With Putin Since Taking Office

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President Trump will hold a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution talks to NPR's Kelly McEvers about the issues the leaders are likely to discuss. He says he hopes for a serious tone on both sides — and modest expectations.


President Trump is expected to meet face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday at an international summit in Germany. It will be Trump's first meeting with Putin since taking office. I talked to Ambassador Steven Pifer earlier today. He worked with the State Department for more than 25 years focused mostly on U.S.-Russia relations. And I asked him what he thought the tone of this meeting would be.

STEVEN PIFER: What I hope is that the tone is going to be serious on both sides but also with modest expectations. I mean, this is going to be, I would believe, a rather short meeting because it's one of eight or nine bilaterals that President Trump will have on the margins of the G-20 meeting on Friday and Saturday in Hamburg. But it's a chance for them to set the tone and maybe to talk about process. Secretary Tillerson has sort of been given the lead to work on the U.S.-Russia relationship. I think Presidents Trump and Putin should endorse that, urge their foreign ministers to work and maybe talk about some other channels.

For example, it would be useful, I believe, for Secretary Mattis to be talking with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Shoigu, about how you can reduce the risk of miscalculation or accident when American and Russian military forces are operating in close proximity. There's a channel in Syria, but there's also problems - encounters in the Black Sea, in the Baltic Sea that we ought to worry about.

MCEVERS: So Syria, Ukraine, those should be some of the top-line issues. What else do you think might be discussed?

PIFER: Again, I think, given the time of the meeting, they're not going to have a chance to get into detail. But the one thing though I think the president has to raise is Russia's interference in the election in 2016. He has to both put down a marker with Russia and with Vladimir Putin who, according to the American intelligence community, authorized that interference, that that's not acceptable conduct. If he comes back and he's not raised that issue, my guess is he's going to face a significant amount of criticism at home.

MCEVERS: How would that go? How do you imagine that conversation landing with Vladimir Putin?

PIFER: It would not be the kind of conversation where you expect Putin to say, oh, OK, we'll not do it again. The basic point would be to say this is not acceptable. If you continue this or do this in the future, there will be severe consequences. And you expect that President Putin's going to deny it, but you put down the marker.

And I'll bring up an example. I worked with President Clinton on the National Security Council back in the 1990s. And one issue that President Clinton did not like to raise with President Yeltsin was the behavior of Russian security forces in Chechnya when there was a conflict going on there. And it was never going to be a productive conversation. But we said, Mr. President, you need to raise it, first of all, to put that marker down with Yeltsin that we're concerned. But second, it's also going to be important that Mike McCurry, your spokesman, goes out and says, yes, the president raised it.

In this case, when Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Putin, he needs to put the marker down with the Russians. But he also has to have his press people be able to say he raised the question. Otherwise, it's going to be, I think, a very unhappy homecoming for him.

MCEVERS: As you said, U.S.-Russia relations have not been great for some time. I mean, do you think Donald Trump has an opportunity here to establish a more constructive relationship with his counterpart than his predecessors?

PIFER: There is that possibility, but I think it's going to take a step-by-step process and a lot of hard diplomatic work. I would be very wary if there's any big deal announced on Friday because it's hard to see what the sides could work out in just an hour or an hour and half of discussions. And this is one of the things I do worry about - that there may be a temptation for President Putin to come in and put on the table something that looks big and attractive and is appealing to President Trump but has some hidden downsides that he may not immediately recognize. And that kind of deal, which then falls apart within a couple of days, is going to end up putting the U.S.-Russia relationship in an even deeper hole.

MCEVERS: Steven Pifer. He is retired from the U.S. foreign service and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

PIFER: Thank you.

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