On paper, Vladimir Putin should not have had the upper hand going into the meeting.
To start with, Russia has been living with sanctions put in place more than three years ago because of their annexation of Crimea.
And most Americans, save a few people including the President
of the United States, are confident that Putin led the Russian intervention into the American election and into many other elections around the world.
To start with, the Russians are skilled public manipulators.
They understand, better than most, the importance of the public side of diplomacy. It made planning easy, but it also required on-the-fly adjustments to make sure that the Russians didn’t read out meetings or characterize conversations without the perspective of the United States. And they still got the best of us from time to time.
They know how to stage-manage and how to set the expectations for global events. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is a smooth operator who knows how to charm cameras and international audiences. He is visible at international events and followed by a gaggle of adoring state-run media. He also rarely shies away from answering questions, holding press conferences, or reading out meetings.
He has been on the international scene as foreign minister for 13 years, and as the UN ambassador for 10 years before that, and it shows.
The Russians telegraphed in advance of the meeting that their agenda was to
1) publicly mend the relationship,
2) gain a better understanding of US policy, and
3) discuss joint concerns over terrorism. They scored on all three.
Their previewing kept expectations low and made clear that there simply would not be enough time to talk about Ukraine.
And how did the United States preview the meeting and set the table for the most important diplomatic engagement this summer?
The problem is that the expectation-setting and previewing of important diplomatic meetings does more than just fill wire reports and cable air time. It sends the message about what the United States expects to accomplish, how prepared we are for the engagement and also puts the difficult topics on the table that are the core purpose of these meetings.