Polished Putin, tempestuous Trump are a contrast in foreign policy styles
Posted January 13, 2019 3:49 p.m. EST
(CNN) — Last year's Helsinki summit still seems to be paying dividends for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Donald Trump's closed-door meeting with the Kremlin leader last July was in the news again this weekend, following a report by The Washington Post that highlighted Trump's efforts to keep the details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin from public scrutiny.
The Helsinki summit was a prime example: Trump and Putin met for two hours, accompanied only by translators, fitting what the Post described as a pattern of secrecy about Trump's encounters with Putin. (When asked about the story, Trump told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on Saturday he and Putin had "a great conversation.")
It's worth revisiting the summit, which gave Putin a chance to deliver a polished performance that contrasted with Trump's chaotic foreign-policy style.
In the US commentators were aghast that Trump appeared to dismiss his own intelligence community, casting doubt in Putin's presence on the US government's own assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
The Kremlin, by contrast, cast the Helsinki summit as a victory for Putin. Russia's state-dominated airwaves featured Putin looking poised and confident on the world stage, a marked contrast to the chilly reception he received at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, just a few years earlier.
Russian officialdom hasn't responded yet to the swirl of news generated by the Post report, along with a New York Times report about an investigation into whether Trump was working on behalf of Russia against US interests after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The weekly Sunday news program Vesti Nedeli touched briefly on the weekend's Trump revelations, but focused in large part on an exotic new word: Шатдаун (shutdown).
Political turmoil in Washington always plays into a Russian narrative about Western democracies being dangerously dysfunctional, but does it matter how the Kremlin spins this latest controversy? Russia, of course, is an authoritarian country, and Putin's press apparatus can set the agenda domestically.
But the Kremlin's sophisticated press office often appears to be ahead of the White House when it comes to spinning the news.
As the Post article notes, the Kremlin is swift to issue readouts of phone conversations and meetings with foreign leaders. That gives Moscow the chance to cast the first version of the news in a light that is flattering to Putin.
That's especially important as Russia takes on a more energetic role in world affairs. A cursory glance at the Kremlin website shows the Russian president at the center of the geopolitical conversation.
In recent days, Putin has had phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also is getting ready for a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the coming days to hash out the future of Syria after Trump announced last month that US troops would be withdrawing from that war-torn country.
Still, Russia does not have an unlimited ability to set the news agenda. A pattern of propaganda and disinformation has given the Russian government little credibility, whether Putin is explaining away the occupation of Crimea by "little green men" or dismissing evidence of Russian intelligence's complicity in the Salisbury nerve-agent poisoning nearly a year ago.
Commenting on Twitter, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves summarized how Moscow's credibility has been strained.
"In my 15 years as foreign minister and prez, after a meeting the Russians would lie about what we had talked about even *with* ample note-takers and staff present," he said.