US National Security Adviser John Bolton was travelling to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and possibly even Russian President Vladimir Putin to lay the groundwork for a summit between US President Donald Trump and Putin.
Bolton, known to be ultra-hawkish, is expected to announce the date and venue of the summit at a news conference later on Wednesday, June 27. Both the White House and the Kremlin have been trying to hold the summit for some time now although persistent issues have continued to affect goodwill between the two Cold War rivals.
However, questions are being raised about the timing of Bolton's move to Moscow. Reports say that the meeting between Trump and Putin could coincide with the final of the ongoing Fifa World Cup in Russia to be played in Moscow on July 15.
The World Cup this year has been a diplomatic gain for Russia, the hosts, and a diplomatic loss for the US, who narrowly missed out from qualifying for this edition. Given the fact that it is Russia, there are enough diplomatic opportunities to gain from by coinciding political summits with the games - something which a shrewd leader like Putin is making use of.
Putin met Saudi crown prince during opening game
Putin met Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during the opening game of the World Cup in Moscow on June 14 when the two leaders' sides took on each other. Although Russia crushed the Saudis 5-0 in the match, off the turf, Putin and Salman had a good time engaging over the deadlock in the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) over lifting oil production.
Putin invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to final
Similarly, on Monday, June 25, Israeli media reported that Putin had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Moscow on July 15 to watch the final of the quadrennial tournament.
For Putin, this is a great opportunity to score as a statesman, especially when the US has left itself discredited through the controversial step of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and deciding to shift its embassy there.
The West now showing intent to make use of WC platform
The West was perhaps waiting to see Russia getting discredited on the world stage by failing to manage its first-ever World Cup as hosts. While travel advisory was issued warning visitors against probable terror attacks, there were also fears that Russia's football hooligans would go on a rampage, leaving the Putin administration red-faced.
But nothing of that sort happened even as the tournament was nearing completion of two weeks and on the contrary, Russia was earning a good name as the hosts of the mega tournament. There were neither instances of boycotting the tournament as had happened with the Olympics in the past. French President Emmanuel Macron told Putin in May that he could visit Russia if France reached the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Instead, Putin's emphasis on using the World Cup to make diplomatic engagements has caught the West aware. The Trump administration is now fancying a meeting between the American president and Putin although such an eventuality comes with a lot of baggage. Trump is under a persistent pressure in his own country over his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential elections.
Moreover, there have been diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Europe over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK, leading to expulsion of scores of diplomats on both sides and even light warnings of boycotting the World Cup.
In these circumstances, heading straight to Russia and that too after meeting the Nato members in Brussels where Trump has made a lot of enemies of late could send a terrible signal about the American establishment.
But having said that, Trump doesn't care about anything and having boasted about bagging the organising rights for the 2026 World Cup along with 'enemies' Canada and Mexico, he could be in a mood to break more diplomatic ice through the football diplomacy.