Trump Should Not Have Canceled His Meeting With Putin at the G-20
The United States is missing an opportunity to keep Russia in line.
In the runup to the gathering of world leaders in Argentina for the G-20 summit, a planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has attracted the most attention. The major question is whether the two leaders will make a deal to ease trade tensions, at least temporarily, or whether Trump will raise tariffs and escalate the ongoing trade war. But beyond the U.S.-China issue, another matter is causing international strain: Russia seized three Ukrainians vessels off the coast of Crimea on Sunday, which led Trump to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20.
Despite Russia’s aggression, Trump’s decision to skip the meeting is misguided. Talking with Putin in Buenos Aires would have been an opportunity for Trump to address the pattern of rule-breaking Russian behavior head-on and stem the momentum Putin thinks is on his side. Without a strong rebuke and actions in response to Russia’s string of provocations, it is almost certain that Putin will either continue on his current path unabated or perhaps even gradually escalate his transgressions.
Over the past year, Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to violate international law and norms that interfere with his efforts to reassert Russia’s great-power status. This is a growing departure from the Kremlin’s long-standing effort to portray Russia as a country that upholds international law, which the Kremlin sees as bolstering its claim to be a responsible global actor. But Putin has grown more assertive and unpredictable. In March, he delivered a provocative annual parliamentary address in which he showcased Russian military capabilities by displaying what appeared to be multiple nuclear warheads aimed at the U.S. state of Florida. Sunday’s events in the Sea of Azov and the March poisoning of a defector in Britain using a news agent demonstrate Russia’s willingness to take drastic measures.
Putin’s rule-breaking behavior reflects a broader evolution in his outlook on world affairs. His recent statements and actions suggest he thinks that the multipolar world he seeks has arrived. This shift in outlook is tied to Trump’s election, which Putin sees as a welcome change in U.S. foreign policy. The global disruption caused by Trump is of considerable strategic value to Russia. Trump’s preference for great-power politics and his transactional approach also mean that the United States has grown less focused on promoting its values. This too is music to Putin’s ears. Since returning to power in 2012, he has prioritized efforts to counter U.S. democracy promotion, which he views as thinly veiled attempts to expand Washington’s influence.
Putin’s positive view of Trump has contributed to his sense that geopolitical momentum is on his side despite economic and diplomatic blowback. The United Kingdom is preparing to exit the European Union in March, Sweden has been unable to form a government since its September election, Hungary and Poland are testing the resilience of EU institutions, and Italy’s populist government vocally supports lifting sanctions on Russia. Moreover, the United States has not helped address these challenges but instead continues to criticize its NATO allies. When Putin looks out at Europe and the United States, he sees fissures and divisions that he thinks he can continue to exploit to advance Russian interests.
Those in support of Trump’s move to cancel his meeting with Putin rightly acknowledge that Putin places great value on meetings with the U.S. president. These encounters allow Putin to portray himself as a leader on equal footing with the president of the United States for both domestic and foreign audiences. By canceling the meeting, the argument goes, the U.S. government is punishing Russia for its aggressive behavior by withholding something that Putin values personally.
Some also argue that canceling the meeting was the right course of action because Trump has no interest in getting tough on Putin and would have been unwilling to deliver the blunt messages required. This was what happened at Trump’s summit with Putin in Finland over the summer, during which Trump challenged the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. A repeat performance at the G-20 might have risked Trump endorsing Putin’s hostilities against Ukrainian vessels, signaling that Russia would face no costs for its aggression.
But the Russians will take home the same message from the cancellation that they would have from a weak performance by Trump—the Kremlin sees Trump backing out as a signal that the administration does not have the desire or resolve to stand up to Putin. This was an opportunity for Trump to deliver a clear warning against further aggression against Ukraine. The G-20 summit presented an ideal setting to deliver such a message because U.S. warnings to Putin are likely to be most effective when they are delivered president to president and in private. Talking this way provides Putin with the latitude to adjust his behavior without appearing weak in the eyes of his public.
This was also a missed opportunity for Trump to address strategic stability, particularly his plans for arms-control agreements between the United States and Russia: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which Trump wants to withdraw, and New START, which could have a tenuous future. If Trump remains committed to withdrawing from the INF Treaty, he should have met Putin and discussed Washington’s strategy for managing what comes next. By proposing new arms control mechanisms rather than waiting to react to Russia’s response, Trump would have greater ability to shape the contours of the post-INF order.
Putin will take Trump’s inability to deliver a strong warning at the G-20 as permission to push ahead on Russia’s current dangerous and destabilizing course. He is likely to perceive a permissive environment not just in Ukraine, rut also for his plans to undermine U.S. leadership more broadly. With all eyes on Trump and Xi at the G-20, Trump would have been wise to convey to Russia that the United States is watching and willing to act.