Senior Russian officials publicly chided U.S. President Donald Trump following his announcement on Thursday that he would no longer meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit of world leaders in Argentina.
Trump announced the cancellation via Twitter, citing Russia’s seizure of two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat in the Kerch Strait, a shared zone which sits between Ukraine and Russia. He said his decision “would be best for all parties concerned.”
But some wondered if new developments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation were to blame.
Russian officials questioned Trump’s justification for scrapping the meeting at the last minute and dismissed the notion that the diplomatic development would be a setback for Russia.
A spokesperson for the Kremlin on Thursday said the cancellation would free up time “for useful meetings.”
A top Russian lawmaker said the forgone meeting was a lost opportunity “not for Putin, but for Trump.”
“We have heard the official explanation and taken note of it,” Kremlin foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said during a Friday briefing. “But is it true? I think the true reason is rooted in the domestic political situation in the United States.”
The leaders could still connect at the summit. The Kremlin said Friday that it expects an informal meeting to take place. The White House seemed to leave open that possibility, saying only that no meeting had been scheduled.
Asked if he would exchange pleasantries with Putin, Trump told reporters Friday, “not particularly. I don’t know.”
Timing spurs speculation
The timing of the cancellation spurred speculation that domestic politics were at play.
The president had told reporters just before he boarded a plane to Argentina that he believed it was “a good time to have the meeting.”
That morning, however, the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the president’s business dealings with Russia, a possibly embarrassing development just ahead of a bilateral meeting with that country’s leader.
Cohen said that he had lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year about his work on a potential Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen had told lawmakers negotiations had ended in January 2016. In reality, Cohen said during his plea Thursday, work continued for at least six more months, during the crucial period in which Trump all but secured the Republican nomination for president.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney, said in a statement following the plea that it was “hardly coincidental” that Mueller brought the charge “just as the President is leaving for a meeting with world leaders.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Mueller’s probe “probably does undermine our relationship with Russia.” But, she said, the “reason for our canceled meeting is Ukraine.”
“I think that likely President Trump and his advisors realized that meeting with Putin would create increased liabilities for President Trump, considering his performance in Helsinki,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former Russia country director in the Department of Defense. “Clearly they felt vulnerable because of this domestic situation going on.”
Russian lawmakers suggested that the cancellation was pushed by “anti-Russian” forces in the U.S. government.
“Trump’s cancellation of a meeting with Putin is another [instance of] Twitter anti-diplomacy,” said Leonid Slutsky, a Russian member of parliament who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament.
Slutsky told reporters Trump was “probably squeezed by Russian opponents inside the U.S.,” and said the move “goes completely in line with the anti-Russian policy,” according to a report in the state news agency TASS.
In a post on Facebook, Russian senator Konstantin Kosachev said the “source and the driving forces” behind Trump’s action are “exclusively in the whirling of domestic political passions in the American capital.” Kosachev chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house.
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said in an email that Moscow has a pattern of “distinguishing between President Trump and the tougher, more realistic policies of his Administration.” The latest development, he said, is no exception.
Foreign policy victory
Kosachev also suggested that Trump may have delivered Russia a foreign policy victory. He cited the language the president used in his post on Twitter.
“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting,” the president wrote.
Kosachev wrote that, because the ships are in Russia-occupied Ukraine, Trump’s statement that the ships are in Russia “is nothing but a long-awaited recognition.”
“This is already an alarming signal for Kiev, and not for Moscow,” he wrote.
The Trump administration has aggressively countered Russian influence in Ukraine, and last year approved the largest sale of defensive lethal weapons to the country since 2014.
But Trump’s stance on which country has a claim to Crimea has gone back and forth. During the 2016 campaign, Trump successfully softened language in the Republican Party platform regarding U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Asked in June about whether the U.S. would recognize Russia’s occupation of the territory, Trump said: “We’re going to have to see.”
Kosachev’s point illustrates why presidents need to be careful what they say, said Simakovsky.
“Russians are looking at every little slip to try to play it to their advantage,” he said. But while the tweet was a “complete gaffe” by the president, Simakovsky said it was not a signal of a broader policy shift.
The State Department referred CNBC to the White House on Friday. Raj Shah, a White House spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment.