Kerch Naval Clash Upends Planned Trump-Putin Talks

Until the Russian attack Sunday on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea, the White House and the Kremlin had at least agreed on one thing, the agenda for Saturday’s scheduled face-to-face between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, their second summit meeting.

Arms control, security issues as well as the Middle East and North Korea were all set to figure prominently, senior U.S. and Russian aides told reporters in the run-up to the meeting.

The Kremlin had earmarked as their key issue, say Russian officials, Trump’s recent decision to abandon a landmark Cold War-era agreement prohibiting the U.S. and Russia from possessing ground-launched short-range nuclear missiles.

For the White House, securing a public commitment from the Russians to enforce United Nations sanctions on North Korea before next month’s planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a key objective, according to U.S. officials.

But the Russian attack on three Ukrainian vessels shifted the dynamics of Saturday’s planned two-hour face-to-face between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Argentina, say analysts, with the U.S. leader being urged to take a tough line that might imperil his overall determination to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

Trump suggested Tuesday he might cancel the meeting after Russian ships opened fire on and seized the Ukrainian ships near Crimea.  Then on Thursday, after telling reporters the meeting will go ahead, he tweeted that he has canceled the meeting “based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia.”  “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” he said.

Kremlin officials had earlier said they expected the meeting to be held.

“We don’t have to agree on all issues, which is probably impossible, but we need to talk.  It’s in the interests of not only our two countries, it’s in the interests of the whole World,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Earlier this week John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Adviser, said Trump was planning to discuss security, arms control and regional issues with Putin.  “I think it will be a continuation of their discussion in Helsinki,” he said, referring to the first summit meeting between the two leaders held in Finland in July, when they met for more than two hours with only their translators present.

The Helsinki sit-down prompted widespread criticism of Trump from across the U.S. political spectrum, with Republican and Democrat lawmakers expressing dismay at what they saw as the U.S. leader’s amplifying of Putin denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington wanted to see tougher enforcement of sanctions against Russia as a consequence of the Russian action, the first time the Kremlin has staged open aggression against Ukraine since Putin annexed Crimea four years ago and launched a destabilization campaign in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to address the Kerch incident at the G-20 meeting.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko piled pressure Thursday on the G-20 by calling for a tough collective response to Russia, saying he fears Moscow intends broader military action against his country.  European Union hawks have called for more sanctions to be imposed on Russia, although with the bloc already divided over policy towards Russia it is unlikely that will happen swiftly without a strong lead from Washington, say diplomats.

Trump waited more than 24 hours after the maritime clash before he commented on the incident, prompting criticism, once again, that he was going lightly on his Russian counterpart.  But once he did address the clash, his irritation was clear.  “I don’t like that aggression.  I don’t want that aggression at all,” he told the Washington Post.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution told VOA if Trump “does not raise the question of the Russian conflict against Ukraine … the Russian would calculate the President is weak on this issue.  That’s going to be bad for Ukraine, but also bad for American foreign policy.”



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