Moscow was covered in snow and Donald Trump‘s inauguration still several weeks away when Vladimir Putin‘s aides started discussing the most suitable location and setting for their boss’s first official meeting with the new US president. The atmosphere needed to be perfect for the two men to make a new start in a relationship the Kremlin deemed beyond repair with Barack Obama.
As Mr Putin finally sits down with Mr Trump at the G20 in Hamburg this Friday, little if anything is left of those high expectations. Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, on Wednesday acknowledged that establishing a dialogue was viewed as an achievement in itself, such is the volume of disagreements that have mounted during months when the two sides have barely been talking.
“It is going to be a great show, but there is no agenda and there was no preparation,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a Moscow think-tank. “The only meaning that’s left is for Putin to figure out, based on his intuition, if any business can be done with this person, or if Trump is unable, or even unwilling, to engage.”
Many people in America think Moscow must be delighted with how things have turned out with the election of Mr Trump, who has expressed admiration for Mr Putin and whose nationalistic leanings and disregard for the international order have destabilised the west.
But things look very different viewed from the Kremlin. Russian officials say that if anything relations with Washington are even worse than when Mr Obama left office — a moment marked by Moscow as rock bottom in bilateral ties.
“We went into this with a lot of patience and flexibility since we thought pushing [Trump] would be counter-productive,” said a senior Russian foreign policy official. “But waiting has been useless — things get worse and worse.”
Publicly, Moscow officials are putting on a brave face this week. Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said the impending encounter was “important not just for bilateral relations, which are practically at freezing point, but also for ensuring international stability and security”.
Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister who handles bilateral ties with the US, expressed the hope that the two leaders would touch upon a broad array of issues ranging from arms control to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
But Moscow has been dismayed by how hopes have unravelled over the months of Mr Trump’s presidency.
After Mr Trump refused to criticise Russia or Mr Putin during the presidential campaign at the same time that he was attacking Nato, Republicans in Congress grew nervous that the new US president would take a much softer line on Russia than Mr Obama.
Growing concern about Mr Trump’s stance coupled with anger over the allegations that Russia had meddled in the US election spurred Congress to press ahead with sanctions that — once approved, as is assumed will happen — will both punish Moscow and make it tougher for Mr Trump to ease punitive measures.
While Mr Trump has not echoed the congressional criticism, he has appointed officials — including Fiona Hill at the National Security Council — who have maintained a tough line on Russia, particularly after Moscow refused to accept that the Syrian regime was responsible for a chemical attack on its own citizens.
One foreign ministry official said Russia was hearing contradictory signals from senior members of Mr Trump’s team. “The chaotic ways of an administration where so many key positions have not been filled make things more difficult,” the official said.
Efforts to cut through the conflict have stalled. When Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state welcomed by Russia as a pragmatic dealmaker with thorough knowledge of the country, visited Moscow in April, he agreed with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to have two of their deputies keep open a channel of communication to prevent any further degradation in bilateral ties.
But almost two months after that decision, the channel had not even been established. Talks were finally scheduled in mid-June, they were furiously cancelled by Moscow after the US Treasury’s move to broaden sanctions against Russia.
“By now, we feel that the ball is in Washington’s court to show some goodwill,” said the foreign ministry official. As a test for such goodwill, Moscow is zeroing in on the Russian diplomatic properties in the US which the Obama administration seized in its final days to punish Moscow for alleged espionage and interference in the US elections.
Despite reports that Mr Trump might return a leisure compound in Maryland to the Russian embassy, nothing has happened so far, triggering warnings from Moscow that it could be forced to retaliate.
While the Kremlin has long blamed the failure of a breakthrough with Washington on Russophobia in the US political establishment and teething troubles in the new administration, unease is growing among Russian officials that it might be Mr Trump himself who is the problem.
Russian pundits are talking increasingly openly about Mr Trump’s personal shortcomings, such as his lack of sophistication in international affairs and his mercurial character.
“Personally, he clearly is drawn to Putin, but policy-wise, we may be forced to recognise that Russia is just not a priority for him,” said Mr Lukyanov. “Trump’s priority is to change the global trade order. That’s why China and the EU, especially Germany, are so important for him. But Russia is insignificant here.”
More from the Financial Times: