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Russia Presses Trump for White House Meeting With Putin

Russia sought to move beyond last week’s diplomatic confrontation with the West on Monday by pressing President Trump for a White House meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin that would undercut the perception that the angry reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain has left it isolated from the international community.

The Kremlin foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said in Moscow that Mr. Trump, in a telephone call with Mr. Putin on March 20, proposed that the two leaders meet at the White House in the near future. Mr. Ushakov made clear that the Russian leader would like to take him up on the suggestion. “This is a rather positive idea,” he said.

Mr. Trump mentioned to reporters on the day of the phone call that he expected to “be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future,” and the White House confirmed on Monday that it was among “a number of potential venues” discussed. But the phone call came before last week’s tit-for-tat mass diplomatic expulsions sparked by the nerve agent attack on Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Britain.

It is not clear whether such a meeting is still viable, and both sides issued vague or even conflicting statements on Monday. Within hours of Mr. Ushakov’s comment, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, discounted it, saying the president’s adviser was not correct.

In her own statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, confirmed that a White House meeting was discussed but played down the prospect, saying, “We have nothing further to add at this time.”

The idea of a personal get-together between the two presidents after each of them expelled 60 diplomats and closed consulates underscored the volatile nature of the Russian-American relationship these days. Mr. Trump has remained on friendly terms with Mr. Putin personally even as ties between their countries spiral toward Cold War depths.

But a meeting between the two leaders at this point would seem to conflict with the attitude of Mr. Trump’s incoming foreign policy team, including Mike Pompeo, his nominee for secretary of state, and John R. Bolton, hisnew national security adviser, both of whom are considered Russia hawks.

“I think the Russians are looking for an off-ramp at the moment,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia during President George W. Bush’s administration and now director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. “Perhaps they have followed” news accounts “about divisions over Russia policy and they want to set a possible meeting in motion before Bolton and Pompeo assume their new jobs.”

Sarah E. Mendelson, a former State Department official under President Barack Obama now at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested it may be part of “a strategy on the Russians’ part to engage Trump as if he were disconnected from his” advisers. Just as Mr. Trump engages Mr. Putin as if there were not tension because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the special counsel investigation into contacts with his campaign, Mr. Putin may simply ignore that as well.

“It all seems to be happening in parallel universes,” she said, “one in which Russia poisons and interferes, and another in which none of this happened.”

Other analysts said the discussion of a possible meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin may be more for domestic consumption in a Russia that sees itself excoriated by the international community after the poisoning of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

“People are realizing what a major hit they took,” said John R. Beyrle, a former American ambassador to Russia. “It’s a way to say, ‘See, it’s not so bad, Putin is still welcome in polite society.’ I was in Moscow last month just before the elections and was struck by how fed up some members of the Russian elite are getting at their perpetual pariah status — and this was before Skripal.”

A White House visit would be a significant gesture toward the Russian leader. Mr. Putin has not been to the White House since 2005, when Mr. Bush hosted him there. Other than United Nations sessions, Mr. Putin’s last visit to the United States for a presidential summit meeting came in 2007 when Mr. Bush and his father hosted him at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me. Mr. Obama never invited Mr. Putin to the White House during his eight years in office, and the Russian declined an invitation to Camp David in 2012 for a meeting of what was then called the Group of 8. The two did meet in New York in 2015 during a United Nations session.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin have met in Germany and in Vietnam on the sideline of international summit meetings and currently have no plans to get together before November, when both are expected to attend a Group of 20 gathering in Argentina.

Mr. Ushakov said the two sides had not started any preparatory talks for a White House meeting because of the tailspin in relations. He nonetheless voiced a desire that Mr. Trump not drop the idea. “I hope the Americans won’t abandon their proposal to discuss the possibility of holding the summit,” he said.

Just as Mr. Trump has shown a striking reluctance to criticize Mr. Putin, even when the two countries are ejecting each other’s diplomats, the Kremlin and the Russian news outlets it controls have often avoided criticizing Mr. Trump directly.

Soon after news of a possible White House meeting broke on Monday, a discussion on Rossiya 1, a state-controlled television channel, focused on a host of conspiracy theories to explain why the nerve gas attack in Britain had so disrupted relations between Moscow and Washington. Most revolved around the premise that American interest groups opposed to Mr. Trump’s desire for rapprochement with Russia had staged the poisoning as a “provocation” to drive a wedge between Europe and Russia.

Particularly popular was the idea that the attack was an attempt to get Europeans to stop importing natural gas from Russia and shift to supplies from the United States. None of the participants in the discussion faulted Mr. Trump for the sharp deterioration in relations.

In a debate on state-controlled television on Sunday evening, a weekly shout-fest often dedicated to screaming about American perfidy, Sergey Mikheev, one of the participants, put forward what seems to be the consensus view of Russia’s establishment: Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin are both eager to meet as soon as possible so they can stabilize relations but are prevented from doing so by opposition in the United States.

“It’s not because Putin isn’t ready, and not because Trump doesn’t want to meet Putin,” he said. “No such thing at all. Trump said that he is, in fact, even ready to meet Kim Jong-un. It is internal problems that prevent Trump from meeting anyone.” America’s “internal political crisis,” he added, “prevents Trump from solving this problem. Current domestic political situation in the U.S. is such that Trump can’t afford meeting Putin.”

Courtesy: The New York Times