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Politics & Government

In First Meeting With Putin, Trump Raises Russian Election Meddling


President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met today on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg. They've exchanged phone calls since Trump became president, but this was the first time that they've spoken face to face. After it was over, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the meeting went on for two hours and 15 minutes.


REX TILLERSON: The president opened the meeting with President Putin by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject. The president pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he's here to help us analyze the meeting in Hamburg. Good to see you again. And what do you make of that opening, that Donald Trump opened with the accusations of meddling in the 2016 election? Putin denied it, but evidently it was a robust exchange.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, it's a step forward for the president if he begins to take a more sustainable approach to this question. Denial has not done him any good. And for him to be able to say in public afterwards, I put it to Putin, I said this is unacceptable, we're not going to allow it, you're not going to benefit from it, that's all to the good. There are a couple of questions that it raises, though. Are the Russians going to give the same story as to what happened? Does the president, having not gotten complete satisfaction from Putin, going to say, yes, actually, sanctions should stay in place now? Is there anything that's constructive that can be done on this issue? It's not all that likely that President Putin is going to get a lot of people in Washington saying, well, if President Putin says he's not going to interfere in the future...


SESTANOVICH: ...You know, that's good enough for us.

SIEGEL: Well, there are some other very contentious issues dividing the U.S. and Moscow - Syria, Ukraine, North Korea. Does a face-to-face meeting and the development of some personal chemistry between two leaders - can it have any impact on issues that big and that troubling?

SESTANOVICH: Well, only if there's some careful preparation. Take Ukraine. The president announced a special envoy on Ukraine earlier before the meeting, Ambassador Kurt Volker. That's a good step. If Putin wanted to use that personal chemistry that you referred to as a cover for getting out of Ukraine, that would be all to the good. If he uses the personal chemistry or thinks he can use the personal chemistry as a cover for staying in Ukraine, not so good.

SIEGEL: On Syria, Secretary Tillerson said there was an announcement of a cease-fire between the U.S. and Russia. And I believe it involves Jordan as well. There have been other cease-fires there. Do you get any sense that this is a moment for progress on that score?

SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, the Russians and the U.S. both have ongoing military operations in Syria. And they've been able to stay out of each other's way, what they call de-confliction. The next phase that is going to be more challenging is the one that Secretary Tillerson today called de-escalation, meaning that you actually work together not just militarily, but also toward a political outcome. That's been much harder. The two sides have not been able to cooperate successfully on that front. And what makes anyone think that they're going to be able to now I don't know. Maybe Secretary Tillerson does.

SIEGEL: One other point. What does a meeting like this look like if we were sitting in St. Petersburg or in Moscow, Russians watching all this? Is it a big deal for Vladimir Putin to get the one-on-one with the president of the United States in Hamburg?

SESTANOVICH: I think so. Russians who analyze these things tend to say, oh, it's win-win for Putin because if it goes badly then he looks like a tough guy, if it goes well he looks like a peacemaker. And that suggests that there's a nationalist payoff to seeming like a difficult person who doesn't take any guff from the Americans. But I think acceptance is also an important issue for any Russian president. And Putin is somebody who's been out of the club for a long time. You know, the G-7 used to be the G-8. He's been kicked out. The idea that he might be brought out of his pariah status, I think, has got to mean something to him, particularly since he's got an election next year.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich served as the U.S. ambassador for the former Soviet Union. He's a professor at Columbia University. Thanks for talking with us.

SESTANOVICH: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 12, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web introduction stated that President Trump met with the Russian president on Thursday. The two leaders actually met on Friday.