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Opinion

Opinion: G20 Putin-Trump showdown delivers on Syria, but no fireworks

Anticipation over the clash of egos between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin reached fever pitch in the run-up to the G20 summit in Hamburg. Would it live up to expectations? Rob Mudge is left somewhat disappointed.

A boxing epic between, say, Vladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury would have been hard-pushed to match the hype attached to the first meeting between the world's leading alpha dogs, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. 

Read more: Trump and Putin take center stage as Hamburg's G20 begins

Would Putin buckle under Trump's bone-crushing handshake? Would Trump avert his eyes from Putin's glacial stare? Who would twitch first?

Watch video 01:57

Historic handshake: Trump meets Putin

Somewhat disappointingly, none of the above materialized. The handshake was held just long enough to make both feel comfortable; in an unguarded moment they actually looked quite jovial and there was even something resembling a smile on Putin's face - a stark contrast to the Russian leader's icy meeting with Trump's predecessor Obama at last year's G20 summit. Not to be outdone Trump said it was an "honor" to meet Putin.

They even found common ground in controversy by timing their meeting to coincide with the start of the climate talks - one of the key issues here at G20 and one close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's heart. Even though Trump took part in the first half of the meeting, it's quite clear that the state of the planet's ecosystem is not exactly a priority to him.

No real fireworks

Those wishing for fireworks - especially given that the two talked for over two hours rather than the allotted 35 minutes - were left frustrated. But for those looking for something tangible beyond the body language, there was something to shout about in the form of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria agreed by both leaders and regional players to take effect as of Sunday. Detractors might argue it's just a drop in the ocean, but every little bit helps in that part of the world.

However small, it's a breakthrough given the rhetoric dished out by both sides in the run-up. Speaking in Poland on the eve of the summit, Trump managed to ruffle Putin's feathers by touting Western supremacy and calling on him to stop Russia's "destabilizing influence in Ukraine" and its "support for hostile regimes" like Syria and Iran.

Read more: Donald Trump well received in Poland, outside observers more critical

Tit-for-tat accusations

Not to be outdone, Putin took a thinly veiled swipe at Trump's trade policies, criticizing the US restrictions on trade and investment, which he described as nothing other than "masked protectionism."

Trump had gone into his presidency boasting of how great his relationship with Putin's Russia would be. Putin, as is his wont, reacted cautiously, perhaps hoping that US-Russian ties would indeed take a turn for the better following the Obama presidency, but keeping his cards close to his chest nevertheless.

The furore over allegations that Russia meddled in the US election and colluded in the Trump campaign has put both men in a more than awkward position. With Putin denying any involvement and Trump seeking assurances that Russia won't interfere in US affairs, they were were probably more than happy to skirt around the issue. Instead they chose to focus on a path forward for Syria (although differences over Assad`s fate could yet put a spanner in the works) and how to agree to disagree on the situation in Ukraine.

The pre-meeting hype may have failed to live up to media expectations. As disappointed as some may be by that outcome, their rapprochement - however superficial - could actually be a refreshing development, even if it ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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