President Trump reopened direct communications with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday and sought to reignite what he hoped would be a special relationship by agreeing to work together to broker a cease-fire in war-torn Syria.
In their first telephone conversation since the United States launched a cruise missile strike on Syria’s Moscow-backed military to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, Mr. Trump agreed to send a representative to Russian-brokered cease-fire talks that start on Wednesday in Astana, Kazakhstan. He and Mr. Putin also discussed meeting each other in Germany in July.
But American and Russian officials offered divergent accounts of their interest in establishing safe zones in Syria to protect civilians suffering from a relentless, six-year civil war. A White House statement said the two leaders had discussed such zones “to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.” The Kremlin statement made no mention of safe zones, and Mr. Putin’s spokesman said they had not been discussed in detail.
Still, at the talks in Astana, Mr. Putin’s envoys plan to propose that Russia, Iran and Turkey act as buffer forces separating government and rebel forces in some areas of Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad is skeptical of the plan, seeing it as the first step toward a partition of the country, according to diplomats and analysts.
The call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin was aimed at getting past the rupture of recent weeks and beginning to forge a more collaborative relationship. Mr. Trump came to office praising Mr. Putin and making it a priority to draw closer to Moscow, but his goal has been hobbled by multiple investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s election and the clash over Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The initial optimism on both sides has given way to a sour and uncertain mood as geopolitical gravity has pulled Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin in opposite directions and lowered expectations. While a grand bargain now seems out of reach, the two leaders appeared intent on finding areas where they could agree while managing areas where they did not.
“Still some hopes, disappointment and caution,” Vladimir Frolov, a prominent foreign policy analyst and columnist, said of the atmosphere in Moscow. “And apprehension. They are apprehensive about the way that the Trump administration behaves internationally, the unpredictable, unilateral nature of their steps. But they are still hoping for some agreement.”
Mr. Trump never gave up, even after he said relations between the United States and Russia “may be at an all-time low.” While senior members of his team excoriated Moscow for enabling the Syrian government to use nerve agents against civilians, the president tempered his language, making sure not to criticize Mr. Putin personally and later expressing optimism that “things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia.”
When Mr. Trump met with ambassadors from the United Nations Security Council last week, he told them, “The future of Assad is not a deal-breaker,” a Russian diplomat said afterward. And last weekend, he returned to his past equivocation on whether Russia hacked Democratic servers last year, saying it “could’ve been China, could’ve been lots of groups.”
Tuesday’s phone call was the third between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin since the American inauguration in January. Both sides offered positive assessments, with the White House characterizing the conversation as “a very good one” and the Kremlin calling it “businesslike and constructive.”