The July 16 one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin came at a tense moment for the two countries, with bilateral ties sinking to lows not seen since the Cold War.
But it also came at a time when Trump faces a growing cloud at home, as U.S. intelligence agencies, congressional committees, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation continue to probe the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election that Trump won.
Just three days earlier, the latest indictments were announced in Washington, targeting 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of conspiring to meddle in the election campaign.
The summit also came on the heels of a European trip for Trump that was punctuated by discord with NATO allies, public statements undermining British Prime Minister Theresa May, and massive anti-Trump protests in London, and then Helsinki.
Here are several takeaways from the Helsinki summit and what it means for future relations between Washington and Moscow.
For The West, It Could Have Been Worse
Given the diplomatic turmoil that Trump left in his wake, Trump’s meeting could have been worse, says Keir Giles, an analyst with the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, the London-based think tank.
“A lot of people are focusing on the efforts [by Trump] to discredit his own country when faced with Vladimir Putin, but at least he didn’t have time to throw his allies under the bus,” Giles said.
Ahead of the meeting, many observers speculated that Trump was seeking some sort of grand bargain with Putin, one that could have resulted in, for example, Trump de facto recognizing Russia’s claim to Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed in March 2014. That resulted in sweeping economic sanctions being imposed by Washington and its European allies, contributing in part to Russia’s ongoing economic problems.
Other experts had speculated about an agreement to pull back on the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, where U.S. allies are nervous about bellicose Russian actions. Or perhaps a deal to wind down the Syrian conflict, where Washington and Moscow are on opposite sides, while sharing some common interests.
Judging from the public statements, none of that appears to have happened.
“It would have been surprising instead if Putin and Trump had referred to any of the major disagreement between Russian and the United States or any of the major conflicts on which they are on opposing sides,” Giles said. “Or if they had mentioned Ukraine, or the Novichok attack in the U.K., or the interference in the 2016 election in any other way than to excuse Russia. That would have been a surprise.
“Instead, none of these things came up,” he says.
Still on the issue of Ukraine, Putin was able to frame the issue — without challenge — that it was Kyiv that was to blame for not implementing the Minsk peace accords, not Russia, says Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“That was a small remark that, in fact, has significance, importance, because it means that Russia itself is not interested in seeking a means to the end of the Ukraine crisis,” he says. “Instead, it blames Kyiv for the continued problems in Ukraine.”
Heavy On Drama, Light On Substance
Many observers point out that, aside from the rhetoric proclaiming the need for Washington and Moscow to work together and reverse the slide in relations, there appeared to be nothing substantive, at least publicly, that either leader could point to.
Arms control, for example, was one area where experts were suggesting it would be easy — and advantageous — for Trump and Putin to at least map out a way forward — for example, agreeing to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty, which is due to expire in 2021.
“The most important thing to take away from the summit is that it did not seem to have much substance,” says Kimberly Marten, who directs the program on U.S.-Russia relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. “They just sort of said, ‘Now everything is going to be starting over again and we’re friends,’ but there were no specifics.
“We’re left guessing what the substance actually was. It’s not clear why they bothered to have the summit at all,” Marten says.
Marten also notes that during the press conference that followed their one-on-one meeting, and then the working lunch with advisers, Trump and Putin appeared not to be on the same page in terms of what they wanted to demonstrate had come out of the summit.
“President Putin went first, went down the line of a dozen issues, and then President Trump went next, and you’d be expecting he’d be raising that exact same set of issues, but he really didn’t,” she says. “And that sort of left us even more perplexed about what was actually discussed in that — what was it? — two-hour meeting that they had.”
Putin Is The Winner
Even before Trump announced he would be meeting with Putin, veteran Russia experts and former national security and diplomatic officials warned that merely meeting Putin would given the Russian leader a public victory. Shown standing side-by-side with the U.S. leader would allow Putin to demonstrate — both to a domestic audience but also abroad — that Russia was a world power to be taken seriously, despite its long-term problems.
“Everyone anticipated Putin would turn out the winner, and I think he did,” Pomeranz says. “That was a victory for Vladimir Putin. He wants to be perceived as a major global player and Donald Trump provided the necessary confirmation and the platform for that status.
“The added bonus is that Trump showed an unwillingness to confront Russia about the interference in the 2016 election.”
Mike Carpenter, a former Russia official with the White House National Security Council and a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said he believes Trump knew what he was doing in providing Putin with such a prominent platform.
“The losers are U.S. national security interests and the winner is Putin and the Kremlin regime that he represents,” he said.
“The notion that Trump somehow got outplayed, or that he’s not as smart as Putin, and so therefore his experience and so on contributed to his abysmal performance.… His was a very conscious performance. What he did today he meant to do. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was appeasing Putin in a very deliberate way,” Carpenter says.
“This was a very rational calculation by Trump to sell out U.S. interests and help Putin.”
U.S. Foreign Policy: Shadowed By Russia Investigation
During statements ahead of the news conference, both Putin and Trump sounded similar notes about a shared interest in improving bilateral relations. But during the question-and-answer part of the conference, the biggest issue arguably now shadowing ties between Moscow and Washington was brought up by American reporters: Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election that was won by Trump, and whether Trump had actually discussed it with Putin.
Trump indicated that he accepted Putin’s assurances about the meddling allegations, which puts him at odds with the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, the influential Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mueller’s investigators, who on July 13 laid out a damning indictment that detailed interference conducted by Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 campaign, something that would not have happened without the blessing of those in the highest levels of the Kremlin.
“President Trump again showed again an unwillingness to confront Russia about the interference with the 2016 election,” Pomeranz said.
He also said that Trump appeared to show a misreading of the indictments that were issued on July 13.
“What Trump misunderstood was that he raised the indictment to a level of collusion when, in fact, it was speaking primarily about interference. So he didn’t hold Putin accountable to that indictment, and, in fact, dismissed it,” he says.
Carpenter said the indictments were so detailed that it seems unlikely that Trump would not have raised the topic.
“I was expecting that, at least on that score, he would say that he pressed Putin and Putin denied it, and that he would take it up with him again. But no, he did not do that. He, in effect, completely appeased Putin,” Carpenter says.
Exit The U.S. From World Stage?
Despite the fact that there appeared to be no major catastrophes for U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere, Trump’s decision not to confront Putin, and to instead seek warmer ties with him, likely underscores a further withdrawal of U.S. leadership, at least in Europe, Carpenter says.
And it means that some European Union and NATO members who have been reluctant to stick with the sanctions imposed on Moscow in 2014 may begin to move away from that unified position.
“Unfortunately, that is going to mean a widening rift in the transatlantic alliance,” Carpenter says. “It will mean that those countries in Europe that are already questioning whether to sustain sanctions against Russian will be emboldened to pursue a more Trump-like line with regards to Putin’s Russia, and it could mean a real falling apart of the transatlantic community and real fracture in the transatlantic alliance.”
Pomeranz says the Helsinki summit underscored a “dramatic shift in U.S. global policy.”
“It’s another sign, another symptom, of how Trump sees the world and how he has undermined traditional alliances, undermined the United States’ position abroad,” he says.
That Trump doesn’t buy into a wide consensus of U.S. foreign policy that has been in place since World II isn’t surprising, Marten says.
“He is essentially saying that he doesn’t believe in the traditional foreign policy values that the United States has held since World War II,” she says. “I guess we knew that, but saying that so strongly, in so many public contexts, in ways that are very embarrassing and bring shame on the United States, is interesting to watch. And tragic.”