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Kremlin touts Trump-Putin meeting — before Trump cancels it

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/29/2018 Amie Ferris-Rotman, John Wagner
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MOSCOW —President Trump on Thursday canceled a one-on-one meeting with Russian leader Vladi­mir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, a decision he announced just hours after the Kremlin had publicly confirmed the time and date.

In a tweet from Air Force One en route to the summit in Buenos Aires, Trump blamed the cancellation on Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors over the weekend.

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Trump had previously cast the Buenos Aires sit-down into doubt, telling The Washington Post in a Tuesday interview that he might forgo meeting Putin after Russia’s naval action sparked global condemnation and a sharp escalation in tensions between the neighbors.

But he seemed to reverse course as he left the White House on Thursday, telling reporters that the meeting with Putin “probably” was still on and that he planned to read a “finalized report” on the clash between Russian and Ukrainian forces while on the plane.

Early in the flight, however, Trump, who has a propensity to change his mind, tweeted: “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 in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.”

“I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” Trump added.

Trump’s decision was cheered by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. He later took to Twitter and wrote in English: “This is how great leaders act!”

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump as they attend a World War I armistice ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. 11. © Ludovic Marin/AP Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump as they attend a World War I armistice ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. 11. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Air Force One that Trump did not make a decision until talking on board with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well by phone as with national security adviser John Bolton, who is in Brazil.

“It’s just happened in the last half hour,” Sanders said.

Sanders said she was “not aware” if Trump had directly informed Putin of the cancellation but said “there was some back and forth” through other channels, without elaborating.

Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had told reporters in Moscow that the meeting would take place Saturday around noon.

“We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state, Peskov said.

“Washington has confirmed,” he added.

Following Trump’s tweet, Peskov told Russia’s Tass state news agency that the Kremlin had not been informed separately by the White House of the cancellation.

“If this is indeed the case, the president will have a couple of additional hours in his schedule for useful meetings on the sidelines of the summit,” Peskov said of Putin.

A Putin meeting would have come at a highly sensitive time for Trump politically, with special counsel Robert S. Muller III’s probe of Russian election interference intensifying back home.

Shortly before Trump departed the White House on Thursday, his former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in New York to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued at the same time he was running for president.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were anxiously awaiting anther Trump-Putin sit-down, with some fearing a repeat of last summer’s meeting in Helsinki, where Trump was widely criticized for appearing too cozy with Putin.

“My fear is the president will put his arm on his shoulder and believe everything Vladimir Putin tells him,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said during a Thursday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” before Trump announced the cancelation.

Speaking earlier Thursday, Peskov said the agenda for the meeting between Putin and Trump included strategic security, bilateral relations, disarmament and regional conflicts.

He said American and Russian delegations would also convene for talks that may last an hour. It was not immediately clear whether those talks were still on.

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has continued to deepen. Kiev is hoping Trump will push Putin on the confrontation, which began Sunday when Russia fired on Ukrainian ships trying to enter the Kerch Strait, a crucial waterway separating the Black and Azov seas.

But while Russia’s maritime maneuvers have been sharply criticized by senior U.S. and Western officials, Trump earlier this week was more reticent on the issue. He stopped short of condemning Russia, instead saying, “I don’t like that aggression.”

Limited martial law in Ukraine is in place for 30 days, and Russia said Wednesday it was strengthening air defense and early warning radar systems on the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine four years ago.

The Kremlin also scoffed at an appeal by Poroshenko for NATO to reinforce the Azov Sea with naval ships, saying this was yet another provocation by Kiev designed to further escalate the situation.

Ukraine is banking on its Western allies to provide military support to contain Russia, which Kiev says is preparing to invade Ukrainian territory by land. The latest crisis threatens to significantly worsen the conflict. Fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014 has resulted in the deaths of 10,300 people.

There have been widespread calls for Russia to immediately release 24 Ukrainian sailors it captured, and some European leaders have called for fresh sanctions against Russia.

But Russia, for the most part, has shrugged off Western pressure. Russia maintains that the crisis was created by Poroshenko for political gain. The deeply unpopular leader could seek reelection in a vote in March.

amie.ferris-rotman@washpost.com

john.wagner@washpost.com

Anton Troianovski and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report. 

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