This weekend in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the leaders of the G20 countries will convene to discuss important issues related to the economy, trade and security around the world. Prior to the beginning of the summit, many analysts were prepared to watch closely multiple different summits among the leaders. This included U.S. President Donald Trump's meetings with the world leaders and the debates on issues ranging from arms control to the trade wars and the Khashoggi crisis. Many observers before the summit would agree on the fact that one of the most significant of these meetings would be the summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since the beginning of Trump's tenure, the issue of Russia has been the most controversial topic in U.S. politics and foreign policy. From espionage activities to hacking from election meddling to geopolitical disputes, the challenges and confrontations between the two countries have been on the agenda of both countries as well as the international community. Trump's reluctance to criticize Putin in some instances has raised eyebrows for many in Washington.Following his inauguration, the investigations about Russian election meddling and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigations made the relations a sensitive topic in Washington.
The controversial Helsinki press conference and Trump's statements during this press conference generated a major debate in the U.S. In the meantime, Trump forced his attorney general to resign. For the last two years, the president has constantly criticized him for recusing himself from the Russia investigations; thus, the issue of relations with Russia has become one of the most significant domestic politics matters in the U.S. In the aftermath of the midterm elections and the Democrats' victory in the House of Representatives, this issue has become a very critical issues for both sides.
In this context, the news of a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin generated major interest and attention from both sides. Many were expecting to s
ee Trump's responses to different issues on Russia-U.S. relations. Following the developments between Ukraine and Russia, the interest in the summit has further increased. While everybody was ready to focus on this meeting, something unexpected happened.
Trump announced with a tweet while he was on his way to Buenos Aires that he had cancelled the scheduled meeting with Putin "based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia." It was an important development since just hours before this tweet he mentioned that it would be a good time to meet with Putin. Trump's last-minute change of mind raised a lot of questions. The fact that the Russian officials did not immediately confirm the cancellation of the meeting demonstrate that it was a unilateral decision.
Some have suggested already that this abrupt decision has something to do with the developments in the Michael Cohen – Trump's former lawyer – case, following his decision to accept that he lied to Congress. These analysts believe that considering the connection of the Cohen case with Russia, a one-on-one meeting with Putin and the photo op could make him uncomfortable at this point. Just before he got on Air Force One to fly to Buenos Aires, Trump stated that Cohen was lying in order to receive a light sentence; however, some legal analysts have suggested that Cohen's statements can generate real challenges for President Trump. His aides might also think that a picture with Putin could be used by the political opposition in the U.S.
A second explanation is referring a potential unwillingness by some members of the administration to condemn Russia because of its actions against Ukraine. Such a situation could generate another major rift within the transatlantic alliance. In the absence of a denouncement, Trump will find himself under pressure from different agencies.
This time it was only a meeting cancellation. Still, observers will see if there will be an informal meeting between the two leaders. The trajectory of the U.S.' approach to Russia and the inconsistencies and incoherence of Washington's Russia policy suggest that under these circumstances, all options are on the table for the future of U.S.-Russia relations. The domestic public constraints in the U.S. may grow following the midterm elections and even on issues of common concern, the two states may fail to build cooperation and coordination due to increasing skepticism.