The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

5 Takeaways From Trump’s Call With Putin

What they didn’t say reveals as much as what they said.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and
vova on the phone
vova on the phone

Today, President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders’ call was highly anticipated, not least because of the bizarre ongoing saga over Russia hacking its way through the U.S. presidential campaign to get Trump elected.

The official White House and Kremlin readouts from the call are vague, but what’s not in them is arguably as important as what is in them.

What they said they talked about:

Today, President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders’ call was highly anticipated, not least because of the bizarre ongoing saga over Russia hacking its way through the U.S. presidential campaign to get Trump elected.

The official White House and Kremlin readouts from the call are vague, but what’s not in them is arguably as important as what is in them.

What they said they talked about:

Syria: The White House readout of the call said Trump and Putin agreed “suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long.” Trump and Putin reportedly discussed establishing “safe” or “de-escalation zones” in the country to relieve the embattled civilian population. The White House also announced it would send a representative to the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan this week. Russia, Iran, and Turkey sponsor the talks. The Kremlin readout says that the emphasis of the talks was indeed on Russia and the United States working together in the “fight with international terrorism in the context of the Syrian crisis.”

North Korea: The biggest geopolitical flashpoint in Trump’s first 100 days, North Korea is stubbornly pursuing a nuclear weapons program and launching missile tests despite a new volley of ominous warnings from Trump. The Russian readout emphasizes that the Kremlin called for restraint and stressed the importance of a diplomatic solution. The White House readout referenced North Korea with but one line: “Finally, they spoke about how best to resolve the very dangerous situation in North Korea.” North Korea’s main political lifeline to the outside world is China, though it maintains economic ties with Russia, which it listed as its friendliest ally earlier this year.

A face-to-face in July in Hamburg: The U.S. readout didn’t mention this, but its Russian counterpart did. The two evidently agreed to continue chatting by phone, but also spoke of having a personal meeting around the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany (to the disappointment of whomever was pinning hopes on those Russian reports that their first face to face meeting would take place in May).

What they didn’t say they talked about:

Ukraine: Ukraine was conspicuously absent from both the White House and the Kremlin readouts of the call. Russia’s incursion into east Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, which spurred U.S. and European sanctions against Moscow, is a huge sore spot in West-Russia relations. That the White House readout didn’t mention Ukraine once could mean several things. Trump might see Syria and North Korea as bigger issues in the bilateral relationship, or the administration (which has continually cast doubts on U.S. commitment to Ukraine) could be eager to sideline the issue so as to gain more cooperation from Moscow.

Anything related to human rights: Other seemingly big issues that were conspicuous by their absence: Russian electoral interference, the alleged abduction and killing of gay men in Chechnya, the crackdown on protests in St. Petersburg in defense of gay rights, the right to freedom of assembly, and the crackdown on civil society. On these, the Trump administration appeared completely silent.

But not to worry. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, eager to carry the defense of Western values that until January was Washington’s calling card, brought up all of the above in her meeting with Putin in Sochi earlier on Tuesday.

Photo credits: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.