For Putin, the ‘Summit He Has Dreamed of for 18 Years’
Posted July 16, 2018 8:04 p.m. EDT
HELSINKI — President Vladimir Putin did not get President Donald Trump to endorse his seizure of Crimea, lift sanctions, halt a new arms race that Moscow can ill afford or cut a deal on any of the other issues that have so poisoned relations between Russia and the United States.
But Putin did get what he needed most from the meeting in Helsinki: a statement by Trump that, whatever America’s intelligence community might say about meddling by Moscow in the 2016 election — and whatever the damage caused by Russian actions in Ukraine — Putin is welcome back in the club of global world leaders.
While Putin seems to have secured no major concessions from Trump, state-controlled Russian news agencies, quoting the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, declared their meeting was “better than super” and “fabulous.”
The host on Rossiya 24, a state-owned news channel that echoes the Kremlin’s take on events, declared that “in the circumstances just having a good talk is itself a big deal.” Both presidents, the host said, “demonstrated a willingness to come to terms.”
By turns somber and jocular, Putin commanded a news conference the two leaders held, with his mastery of policy details and theatrical flair — and by getting Trump to take his denials that Russia meddled in the 2016 election more seriously than the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that it did.
Trump cut a less imposing figure, leaving Putin to explain U.S. policy on Crimea, and nodding while the Russian president scoffed at accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow as “utter nonsense.” Putin even brought along a soccer ball, tossing it to Trump after being praised for Russia’s success as host of the World Cup. “The ball is now in your court,” Putin said.
When a journalist asked whether Russia had compromising material on Trump — a reference to reports that he was caught on video with prostitutes during a 2013 visit to Moscow — the Russian president started giggling before insisting that Trump was one of hundreds of businessmen who have visited Russia, and that he did not know at the time that Trump was in Moscow.
Trump declared to journalists that before he met Putin Monday in the Hall of Mirrors at Finland’s presidential palace, the relationship between Moscow and Washington had “never been worse.”
“That changed as of about four hours ago,” Trump said. “I really believe that.”
Many don’t believe it, however, just as many doubted Trump’s claim after his meeting in May with the dictator of North Korea that he had solved the Korean nuclear crisis. For Putin, frustrated for months by Trump’s failure to deliver on his repeated promises to “get along with Russia,” the first formal meeting between the two leaders returned Russia to what Putin views as its indispensable and undeniable role as one of two big powers responsible for settling the world’s affairs.
“To get again on an equal footing with the American president as a respected equal has been one of the prime strategic goals of Putin, and he’s started to achieve this major goal,” said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee of the German Parliament, the Bundestag.
But Röttgen added that despite European fears, Putin did not wring out concessions that would hurt America’s Western allies. Many Europeans will be glad that Washington and Moscow “have started to talk again, and this is a good thing on issues like nuclear nonproliferation, Syria and the security of Israel,” he said.
Jeremy Shapiro, a former U.S. diplomat now with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that European allies would be relieved that Trump did not announce the cancellation of military exercises, as he did after his meeting in May with Kim Jong Un, or make other dramatic concessions.
But the allies, Shapiro said, “will note that this U.S. president is much more interested in domestic politics than geopolitics or anything to do with Europe.”
Trump, he said, wants to ensure that accusations about Russia do not taint his election victory.
“He doesn’t worry about getting too close to Russia now, his base won’t mind and his people won’t resign,” he said.
Putin, a proud and prickly patriot, has long been aggrieved by Russia’s expulsion from the Group of 7 industrialized democracies after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, by the imposition of sanctions and by its relegation by President Barack Obama to the status of a “regional power.”
Unveiling what he described as new “invincible” weapons in a state of the nation address in Moscow in March, Putin complained bitterly that “nobody really wanted to talk to us.” He added: “Listen now!”
The meeting in Helsinki has, if nothing else, shown that the United States is listening, and even ready to give Moscow a pass on Crimea; on the shooting down of MH17, a passenger aircraft traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, over eastern Ukraine in July 2014; and on its election meddling.
“This is Putin’s fourth U.S. president and this is the summit he has dreamed of for 18 years,” said Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution. “He finally got to present himself as this global statesman floating above petty politics and present himself and Russia as this great mediator for peace and humanitarian aid.”
Trump dodged a question about whether he trusted Putin’s denials of any meddling more than the assessment of his own intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere, but still said, “I don’t see any reason why it would.” Like Trump, who before the meeting said he had “low expectations,” the Kremlin had also downplayed the prospect of a startling breakthrough in relations.
This left Russia’s political elite to start cheering the outcome of the meeting before it even ended and rejoice that Trump, by just meeting Putin as an equal, had recognized Russia as a global power, not a regional one.
“It is funny to recall the nonsense of Obama and his ilk about Russia as a weak ‘regional power,'” Alexei K. Pushkov, a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament and former head of the lower house’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a tweet Monday afternoon while the presidents were still talking.
“Today, the world’s attention is drawn to Helsinki, and it is crystal clear to all that Russia and the U.S. are deciding the fate of the world, that the leaders of the planet’s leading powers are meeting,” he said in the tweet.
On Ukraine — the foreign policy issue that has most divided Washington and Moscow — Trump let Putin do all the talking. The Russian president even answered a question put to Trump about Crimea, stating that Trump had told him that he considered the peninsula’s annexation illegal, but that Russia considered it a done deal.
“Here Putin takes the role not only of a grand statesman but even as a ventriloquist,” Polyakova said. Trump, she added, “just nodded enthusiastically and let Putin run the show.” In his opening remarks, Putin said the two had agreed to improve economic ties — which were supposed to be curtailed by U.S. sanctions imposed after the Ukraine crisis and election meddling.
“We agreed to create a high-level working group that would bring together captains of Russian and American business,” Putin said. “After all, entrepreneurs and businessmen know better how to enable this successful business cooperation.”
After the Ukraine crisis, the United States pulled out of a working group for business executives that had been meeting regularly since the mid-1990s. While a small step, a revival of this group suggested an easing of economic pressure. “It’s clear businesses in both countries are interested in this,” Putin said, referring to economic cooperation.
James Nixey, who studies Russia at Chatham House, a research institute in London, noted “the massive chasm between the relatively warm words of praise exchanged and the lack of detail on any of the content.”
In his warm words, Trump “comes across as reasonably fawning, as keen as ever in his absolute unwillingness to criticize Putin,” Nixey said.
He added that when Trump was asked if both sides are to blame for the troubled relationship, Trump said yes “but only talked of his side — he’d much rather go back to what he knows best, the election, where he feels he can perform.”