MOSCOW–President Vladimir Putin’s aide, Yury Ushakov, informed the world on Monday about something that he said happened more than two weeks ago: U.S. President Donald Trump invited Putin to visit the White House. That was “quite interesting and positive news,” Ushakov remarked, and expressed hopes that Washington would make the visit possible this year.
Can this be true? The Trump administration has yet to confirm it, and the Kremlin announcement, as well as the invitation, comes amid ongoing repercussions around the poisoning in Britain of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, allegedly by Russian agents acting on Putin’s orders.
Relations have become so noxious between Moscow and many Western countries that Russian diplomats have been expelled from 29 nations, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested on Monday that in some respects the atmosphere is worse that the old Cold War.
“In the classic Cold War,” he told reporters, “there were rules and accepted behavior.” Russia, Lavrov suggested, is the victim in this drama, even as the government closed the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg and kicked out 60 U.S. diplomats.
But it seems highly unlikely that Ushakov would say Trump invited Putin to Washington if that was not the case. “The meeting is definitely going to happen,” suggests Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow radio. “Ushakov would have never damaged Putin’s reputation by risking a ‘no’ from Washington.”
During Monday’s briefing with reporters, Ushakov stressed that since March 20, the day Trump is said to have invited the Russian president to the the White House, there have not been any more negotiations about the visit.
According to Venediktov, Echo of Moscow has confirmed with the Kremlin that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been assigned to negotiate with Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo, and that Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council will negotiate with other U.S. officials.
Even as the news about Putin’s upcoming visit to Washington went viral in Russia, many experts were skeptical, and some suggested the trip could be dangerous.
“If the Kremlin asks me, I will say that Putin should not travel to the U.S., because today Trump has no political power, he cannot provide security for the Russian president,” pro-Kremlin analyst and adviser for the Presidential administration Sergei Markov told The Daily Beast. “Putin is a brave politician, he has risked his life multiple times, but the danger of him getting assassinated in Washington is too high.”
Although Putin did not make any comments on Trump’s invitation, nobody doubted that the Kremlin was very excited about it.
“If Trump makes this meeting happen, Putin will run to Washington in a flash,” Igor Bunin, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, told The Daily Beast. “In the current situation of Russia’s growing isolation, our economy will collapse in two to three years, so this visit would be Putin’s last chance to fix his disastrous foreign policy.” Knowing well the Kremlin’s current agenda, Bunin suggested that the main topics for negotiations with Trump would be the conflicts in Ukraine, issues with Syria, and North Korea.
Those discussions might then be played off against the question of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the the so-called “Magnitsky acts” targeting specific officials for corruption, and broader penalties imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
If it happens, this would not be Putin’s first trip to the United States. He went in the 1990s, as a part of then-President Boris Yeltsin’s staff. Later, as Russia’s president, Putin made at least seven more trips to the U.S. but only three of them were official.
Does Putin realize that he would likely be met in Washington with immense protests? Venediktov, who has followed Putin’s thinking closely for years, is convinced that, like Trump, he is focused on his core supporters and not on critics, however numerous, abroad. Putin was reelected as president just last month with 77 percent of the vote.
Venediktov thinks that, quite apart from the proposed visit, Trump’s talk of a trade war with with America’s European allies is playing into Putin’s hands.
“Putin’s key agenda is to break the West’s anti-Russian unity: he has tried to play Europe against the U.S., without any success. Then he tried to break the unity inside the European Union,” Venediktov said.
That strategy will continue, and Trump might yet help make it work.