WHITE HOUSE - There’s nothing official yet, but sources close to President Donald Trump are hinting he is likely to hold talks Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling with the president on his 12-day Asian tour, kept the rumor mill going Thursday. "Clearly the leaders are going to be at the summit together. It wouldn’t be at all unusual if they ended up with some kind of a pull-aside,” he told reporters.
At the same time, the U.S.'s top diplomat suggested the meeting might not be a full-blown bilateral discussion, wondering aloud whether such a formal meeting would be worthwhile.
"When the two leaders meet, is there something sufficiently substantive?" he asked rhetorically. "No conclusion has been made on that. If we're going to have a meeting, let's make sure it's a meaningful meeting,” Tillerson said.
The Russian side is talking as if a bilateral chat is in the works.
Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told Russian news agencies that the two leaders would meet while they are both in Danang for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Later, however, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said only that the possibility of a meeting was being discussed, according to Reuters. Peskov predicted that the two men would cross paths “one way or another.”
Tillerson acknowledged that Moscow and Washington are working behind the scenes on a "number of difficult areas." But less than 24 hours before the summit is to begin, he cautioned that U.S. officials have not decided whether it's the right time for a follow-up to the first Trump-Putin meeting at the G-20 summit in Germany last July.
That meeting in Hamburg lasted more than two hours, more than twice as long as scheduled. Trump was reported to have pressed Putin at that meeting on the question of alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections. Later in the day, the two men were reported to have spoken again informally during a dinner for G-20 leaders, with only a Russian interpreter present.
Since then, however, ties between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated. In August, Trump grudgingly approved new congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin responded by ordering Washington to substantially cut its diplomatic staff in Russia.
Trump himself mentioned the possibility of a follow-up meeting last weekend, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that he expected to meet Putin in Vietnam to ask for help in reining in North Korea's nuclear weapons development. He made a similar comment Thursday in Beijing after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.
Tillerson said officials from the two countries also are discussing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, while Trump also said that Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election also remains on the table for discussion.
Several scholars of U.S.- Russia relations are leery of direct Putin-Trump talks at this delicate time in the relationship.
Kremlin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, says Putin stands to gain much more from the meeting than Trump.
“It would be better if the United States and Russia have good relations, but the fact is, Putin is challenging the U.S. everywhere in the world, including on their own turf, and Trump doesn’t seem to consider that is hostile to western values, democracy and human rights,” Piontkovsky told VOA. “It’s very strange because Trump declines to notice these worrisome facts.”
Piontkovsky considers it foolish to ask for the Kremlin’s help in lessening the North Korean threat. “That ignores the fact that the tremendous progress of the North Korean nuclear program is enabled by Russian help,” Piontkovsky argued. “Putin is much more an enthusiastic supporter of Kim Jung Un than Xi Jinping. He demands that the U.S. reconcile itself with the idea of a new nuclear power.”
Charles Stevenson, associate director of the foreign policy program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, called a Trump-Putin meeting “risky” for U.S. interests.
“Presidential-level meetings can be helpful in smoothing over misunderstandings and allowing exchanges beyond the glare of publicity or even the knowledge of subordinates,” Stevenson said in a written reply to VOA. “But they can also be extremely risky if not coordinated in advance in order to achieve some agreed communique. I have real doubts that President Trump is skilled and knowledgeable enough to reach any substantive agreements with President Putin.”