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First Encounter Between Trump, Putin Likely To Come At G-20
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The much anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart may take place in Germany during the G-20, according to press reports over the weekend. The meeting is key for setting the direction of Russia-U.S. ties, which have been severed over the last two years of the Obama Administration.
Putin was one of the first leaders to call and congratulate Trump on his electoral victory against rival Hillary Clinton in November. The Russian president has been the brunt of many jokes and conspiracies, mainly started by the Democratic Party, which has blamed Russia for Hillary's defeat last year. Ever since, claims of Russian interference in the U.S. election of Trump have exhausted a number of Russian moderates in Trump's camp, with some DC insiders wondering if the attacks on Trump are also meant, in part, to pull him away from a detente with Russia. Putin is largely seen as a roadblock to regime change in Syria and Iran.
Trump is not the first president to signal a detente with Russia. Obama did the same in 2009. The relationship was at least as good as it was under George W. Bush until around 2012 when former hedge fund manager Bill Browder was successful at lobbying anti-Russian Republicans like John McCain to pass the Magnitsky Act. The law banned Russians affiliated with the death of Browder's account Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the United States and holding assets in dollars. Russia retaliated with sanctions against American individuals deemed to be "war criminals" behind Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Just ignore that...
Two years later, Russia produced a double whammy in Washington when it annexed a Ukrainian peninsula known as Crimea and moved to protect Syrian leader Bashar Assad from ISIS and U.S. backed rebels. The relationship has been on ice since. Trump signaled a return to "normalcy", or better ties. Putin welcomed the news. As did Russian businessmen and investors.
If Trump and Putin's encounter in Germany is perceived by investors as cold, it will ruin sentiment and impact the VanEck Russia (RSX) exchange traded fund. But if Trump and Putin appear cordial and even seem to hit it off, then that would be taken as a good sign by the markets even as sanctions are expected to last the year. U.S. sanctions against Russia end in December. Washington and Brussels sanctioned Russian banks, and oil and gas firms because of the Kremlin's support for anti-government militias in eastern Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN International over the weekend that the two will meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany this July. Peskov noted that there were also chances the two could meet earlier. He noted in the interview that the Russian public were more sympathetic to Trump. (Of course, here.)
"Clinton said that Russia was almost the biggest evil in the world and a major threat to the United States. While Donald Trump, at the same time, pointed out that we have our differences ...but we need to talk with them to reach an understanding," Peskov said.
He also defended his ambassador Sergei Kislyak for meeting with then-Senator Jeff Sessions. The meeting became yet another ingredient in the Democratic Party's soup of Russian conspiracy theories on Trump and his cohorts. "He talked about the bilateral relationship and about what is happening in the United States, so that we have a better understanding of it in Moscow," Peskov said on CNN.
A number of Trump campaign members have had working relationships with Russians. Paul Manafort, Trump's first campaign manager, was called out by The New York Times on allegations that he received over a million dollars in cash payments from Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort denies these payments, which were found in some ledger in Kiev and leaked to the press. Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014.
It is worth noting that many of the anti-Russia headlines have stemmed from Ukrainian activist groups. For example, the Washington Post later retracted a story by a group called PropOrNot that list a number of "fake news" organizations purportedly getting money from the Russian government to make Democrats like bad.
Another rumor is Trump advisor Carter Page, who was part of a team in Russia that brokered an asset sale of Rosneft to Qatar and Glencore. Sources in the Russian oil and gas industry confirmed that Page was part of that deal, which was a non-transparent transaction of state assets to private entities. The rumor mill quickly went to work saying that Page brokered a deal that would give Trump Rosneft shares in an offshore Caribbean bank account if he killed sanctions this year. Rosneft has a joint venture with ExxonMobil in the Kara Sea that has been put on hold because of sanctions.
As one Russian trader put it regarding Page's work in Moscow: complicated, opaque deals with heavy state involvement simply means you're doing business in Russia, and not that there's a conspiracy.
The Russia conspiracy may be on its last legs.