WASHINGTON — The eyes of the world will be on Hamburg, Germany this week, as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose long-distance relationship has already sparked months of debate and speculation — will meet face-to-face for the first time.
But Trump's Russia policy could begin to take shape not at the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg Friday, but in Warsaw beginning on Wednesday. There, Trump will meet with an important ally, and give what's being billed by the White House as a "major speech" to the Polish people about the future of America's relationship with Europe.
And he'll meet with the leaders of 12 eastern European countries as part of an emerging regional effort known as the Three Seas Initiative — an energy-driven economic partnership seen as a counterbalance to Russia.
"Warsaw provides a fantastic opportunity to provide the Trump vision of foreign policy," said Ian Brezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
For Trump, it's a second chance to make a first impression in Europe.
In Brussels in May, Trump scolded NATO allies for not meeting their commitments to spend 2% of economic output on defense. And he failed to assure allies that the United States would come to their defense if they were attacked.
Poland, however, is one of only five countries that meet the burden-sharing agreement, and is the home of 4,000 newly placed U.S. troops meant to deter Russian aggression.
"Brussels, unfortunately, was a flat-footed articulation of U.S. policy," Brezinski said. "Warsaw provides an opportunity to re-calibrate some of his rhetoric that was unhelpful in Brussels."
For many allies, that begins by condemning Russian efforts to undermine Western democracies. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said last week that Trump's policy was "to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior — whether it’s cyber threats, whether it’s political subversion here in Europe and elsewhere."
But the president's rhetoric hasn't always matched that policy. Trump himself has been slow to acknowledge what the intelligence community says was a Russian effort to to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, through propaganda and by orchestrating the theft and release of emails belonging to campaign aides of his rival, Hillary Clinton.
In January, intelligence agencies delivered a report to President Barack Obama outlining what they said were efforts personally directed by Putin to help Trump get elected. Whether key members of Trump's campaign knew about Putin's meddling is now the subject of a wide-ranging special counsel investigation led by former FBI Director James Mueller.
White House officials tried to downplay the meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit, insisting that it is no different from those planned with the world leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom. Japan, South Korea, China, Mexico, Indonesia and Singapore.
"Our relationship with Russia is not different from any other country in terms of us communicating to them, really, what our concerns are, where we see problems in the relationship, but also opportunities," McMaster told reporters. "There's no specific agenda. It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about."
And it's not entirely clear the meeting will even happen.
Global summits often provide opportunities for world leaders to meet one-on-one in what are sometimes called "pull-asides," but a Kremlin spokesman said the only confirmed contact would be during the group meeting with leaders of the other world economic powers. "However, if we are talking about a separate meeting, no preparations are underway for such a meeting," said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
If there is a meeting, it should be as transparent and public as possible, said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
"I don’t know that I trust what he says or does behind those closed doors. He needs to make an open statement, with Mr. Putin standing there," said Meeks, a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee and ranking Democrat on its European subcommittee.
That's what French President Emmanuel Macron did last month, when he used a joint press conference with Putin to condemn Russian state-owned media for being "bodies of false propaganda" in French elections. (Putin denied any Russian meddling, saying "I think this issue does not exist.")
Other looming issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship include North Korea's missile tests, the Syrian civil war, cooperation against terrorist groups and Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
That event united the European Union and the United States, which imposed new rounds of economic sanctions against Russia. Those sanctions have particularly hurt eastern European counties that get much of their energy from Russia.
That's one of the reasons for the Three Seas Initiative summit that Trump will visit in Warsaw. The strategy brings together countries bordered by the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas to work together on building an energy, transportation and telecommunications infrastructure connecting it with Western Europe.
But the United States wants to be part of that energy market as well, and the White House officials said Trump's visit highlights the first shipments of shipments of natural gas to Poland last month.
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