SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on the Russian president's election victory this past Sunday and suggested the two leaders would soon meet in person.
Seven weeks earlier, Trump's man in Moscow — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — said in an interview with the radio station Echo of Moscow that the two men are moving toward a face-to-face meeting.
"We have to take the steps that build the trust and create a framework of problem-solving that results in enough success where the people in Russia and the people in the United States can say, 'OK I understand why they’re having a formal meeting. They’ve done enough together, they’ve built enough trust. They’ve had enough in the way of success in Syria and Ukraine, (North Korea),'" Huntsman said.
Huntsman headed to Russia as U.S. ambassador last October recognizing the relationship between the two countries is at a low point. But in the Jan. 31 radio interview, he said Trump and Putin already have some successes from their informal meetings.
Trump is taking heat for congratulating Putin on his re-election during a phone call Tuesday in which the two leaders also discussed the state of bilateral relations and resolved to continue talking about mutual national security priorities and challenges.
Trump emphasized the importance of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and confirmed the need for the United States and Russia to continue their shared efforts on strategic stability, according to the White House.
"We had a very good call, and I suspect that we'll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control," Trump told reporters.
In the radio interview, Huntsman said "President Trump has told me personally on more than one occasion how much he values conversations with President Putin."
Huntsman said Trump and Putin have also talked on the margins of some gatherings, specifically the Hamburg G20 and more recently the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Danang, Vietnam.
The work that established the "most important" ceasefire in southwestern Syria since the war started came out of the Hamburg sidebar, Huntsman said. The brief meeting in Danang last November resulted in Trump and Putin signing a joint statement on solving the Syria conflict.
"You can have a five-minute pull-aside that results in something that totally changes the dynamic on the battlefield or the transition to government. That’s how important the work is between the United States and Russia," the ambassador said. "So over time, of course, there will be more formal meetings."
Huntsman has spent his first few months on the job trying to meet as many Russians as possible, from people on the street to high-level officials.
“I’ve been able to access people who no ambassador in recent years has been able to access, in the military side, on the intelligence side, and mostly, on the national security issues where we’re deeply involved and in joint efforts, where we need to meet, where we need to carry messages, where it’s critical to get the work done,” he told Foreign Policy in his first interview with the Western press since arriving in Moscow.
The March 14 story in Foreign Policy notes that Moscow and Washington remain at odds over everything from Syria to North Korea as well as the simmering war in Ukraine. There are also U.S. sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and additional measures for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The way forward is uncertain, but Huntsman makes clear what he will not be doing, according to the story.
"In the years past, every new administration has tried to reset, or redo of some sort, and let’s not repeat the cycles of the past, because in every case, the reality was such that those resets could not be sustained,” he said. “Let’s not even begin with that thought in mind; no resets, no redos. Just take the relationship for what it is, clear-eyed and realistically."
The radio interviewer told Huntsman that 69 percent of Russians believe the U.S. is unfriendly to Russia.
Huntsman said he has talked to some of those people in the street and misinformation can give a snapshot of a negative or hostile relationship, adding that type of rhetoric needs to stop.
"I just think the wrong facts and the wrong details sometimes are out there, and they’re spun in an unfriendly and unhelpful way," he said. "If you were to get the real truth out there, I would say that people in Russia would see the relationship as one based on problem-solving, trying to fix things where our interests overlap and generally trying to do the right thing."