Several days ago, President Trump tweeted something kind of strange — a photo of him with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pasted right next to a picture of him beaming near the gruff-looking Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin.
Underneath, the president noted that those two meetings — between countries that are, effectively, at war — happened on the same day (though not at the same time). “Let’s Make Peace!” He signed underneath, as if the quick Photoshop job was a commemorative poster.
In sending that tweet, Trump’s aim seems pretty clear. He’s being hammered in the media for inviting Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak to the Oval Office. Critics say it’s just one more example of the administration’s weakness toward Russia, and Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This little missive was his way of undercutting that message, suggesting that he’s not Putin's puppet. Otherwise, why meet with one of Putin’s enemies? Why call for peace, something that will almost certainly involve Russia returning Crimea to its former owner?
Trump's administration seems to support Ukraine. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the United States will continue to support sanctions. “We do not and will not accept Russian efforts to change the borders of the territory of Ukraine,” he said at a meeting of NATO ministers. Vice President Pence reaffirmed that commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity at a May 10 meeting, according to a readout.
But Trump's tweet undermined that message, experts say. It was bad diplomacy, and may make it harder for the president to accomplish his goals.
Hosting both leaders in the Oval Office, they say, sends a clear message: that Trump views both countries as equals, and that he expects both to make concessions. That's antithetical to the official United States position.
“It seems odd, both in content and style, that a president would signal via Twitter that he is treating the two countries equally without consultation of NATO allies with whom we are joined in sanctions on Russia because of its behavior in Ukraine,” Harvard Kennedy School Prof. Joseph Nye said in an email. Nye has served as a deputy undersecretary at the State Department; an assistant secretary of defense with a focus on international security; and chair of the National Intelligence Council.
Nick Burns, a former Foreign Service officer with decades of diplomatic experience, agreed. “Frankly, this is a superficial tweet that won't move the diplomacy forward,” he wrote in an email. “There is little trust in his leadership in Europe and Ukraine.” Much more impactful, Burns suggested, would be Trump publicly criticizing Russia for its actions.
Marc Berenson, an expert on the post-Soviet world at Kings College, said that he hasn't seen much reaction to the tweet in Russia or Ukraine. The Kremlin would not comment.
Marvin Kalb, a Harvard professor, went even further. The tweet, he said, made it seem like Trump had cut some kind of deal between the two countries. In fact, the leaders met separately. It's not clear that Trump even mentioned Ukraine to Lavrov. Russians and Ukrainians, he said, "know the difference and know that he is playing PR games, using them for domestic political reasons. It won't work, here in political Washington or in Russia or Ukraine, making ultimate negotiation that much more difficult."
What's more, he said, the very notion that Trump would meet with Lavrov because Putin asked him to is dangerous. “Trump coming through as too eager to strike some sort of deal with Russia, giving Putin the negotiating advantage,” he wrote. “They will meet soon, but seriously doubt both can achieve anything more than a good story.”
By Amanda Erickson, The Washington Post