MOSCOW—The plane with Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Hamburg on Thursday, late at night. He had come to Germany, a country where he once served as a Soviet spy, to finally meet face to face with Donald Trump.
Putin’s critics watched the meeting to see how it would set the temperature for business and investment, and also for political freedoms. Putin’s supporters (who are largely sexist) saw it as a symbolic duel of the two most powerful “alpha males” on the planet, with Putin an absolute victor—and Trump’s future career dependent on his friendship with the Kremlin’s leader.
Was Putin going to use his old KGB skills to recruit Trump in Hamburg during their meeting behind closed doors? “Trump is absolutely our guy; no matter how dependent he is on the U.S. establishment, no matter what he has said in Poland about Russia ‘destabilizing’ Europe,” an ideological adviser for the Kremlin, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Friday. “Putin is a much more powerful alpha male than Trump, as he has full support of the absolute majority in Russia, but with Putin’s support Trump should grow stronger, at least with fighting terrorism in Syria.”
Before the Friday meeting was over, the Russian television channel NTV posted a photograph of Putin and Trump bending down toward each other over a small coffee table, as Putin was showing a thumb up to the cameras. The American leader said that their meeting will “have positive outcome for both countries,” NTV promised Russian viewers.
Unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, who came out of his plane and down the stairs hand in hand with his brightly clad wife Melania, Putin arrived without a partner, accompanied by a serious looking unknown official. “So what?” many said in Moscow, Putin always kept his personal life in secret, he is still the biggest macho in Russia.
The country was watching Putin’s gestures, his face and body language, and came to the conclusion Putin was pleased with his G-20 meetings. Anything could go wrong on Friday. Some world leaders could avoid shaking hands with the unpredictable Kremlin leader. For almost three years Russia’s mainstream media have been blaming Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and other Western leaders for acting as “Russophobes”; Russians realize that the West put their country’s economy in a dark corner after Moscow annexed Crimea back in 2014.
At the same time, to many in Europe “business as usual” with Russia is important and on that front Putin’s time in Hamburg seemed to go smoothly. The event’s host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was smiling at Putin’s jokes. Trump said, that it was his “honor” to be with Putin, and Putin said he was “delighted” to be there.
Minutes passed and then hours as Putin and Trump continued their first negotiations. They were in the heart of the European Union, which both might see as hostile territory. EU leaders have recently agreed to prolong and harden economic sanctions against Russia until January 2018. Both newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel made a decision to punish Russia at the European Council until Moscow grows serious on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements of cease fire in the east of Ukraine. And, among other problems, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord has made him an environmental pariah in EU eyes.
Some Russian independent observers believed that it was Putin who needed Trump’s help today, especially in the situation with Ukraine. “According to some information we receive from the Kremlin’s sources, Putin is frustrated about Russia’s involvement in the war in Donbas,” businessman and human rights activist Aleksei Kozlov told The Daily Beast. “He would be happy if Trump restarted the negotiations and helped to find some new solutions to end Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.”
One thing was clear: Neither Putin nor Trump was going to reveal all the details of their 140 minute meeting in Hamburg. Did one recruit the other? Only the people in the room know for sure.