The much-anticipated summit in Helsinki is over and US media and politicians are fuming over Trump’s admiration of the persuasive skills of President Putin. Even though Trump’s performance during the press conference may have played to the Russian side, it is unlikely major Russian goals for the summit centered on making the US president look bad. By meddling in the 2016 election, Russia hoped to sow political disunity in the United States, a disunity that was solidly reinforced by Trump’s behavior in Helsinki. Still, Moscow’s goals and wishes for the summit likely went above and beyond this political theatre. The summit was about restarting the working relationship with the United States in order to get down to business and address some of Moscow’s major grievances.
What did Putin and his advisors dare to hope and dream that they could get out of the Helsinki summit? Although Putin may have favored Trump in the 2016 presidential election, he had little idea of what he was in for. Several policies of the Trump administration, including its February Nuclear Posture Review, may have given Putin pause. Most US pundits were keen to emphasize how the review bore fewer hallmarks of Trump leadership than of the interests of the US nuclear bureaucracy. Other pundits read Putin’s state of the union speech in March (with a 40-minute injection of missile bravado that decidedly animated the otherwise unanimated speaker) as an indication the new elements of Trump’s nuclear strategy had been clearly understood and interpreted in Moscow.
Putin’s wish list for the Helsinki summit likely included three main items. The first was reestablishing a working dialogue with the United States on strategic stability and arms control. This is Russia’s major claim to fame in the great power business but also the area where Russia has its main grievances against the United States. The detail in Putin’s comments at Monday’s press conference demonstrated the importance of this topic, including a carefully orchestrated list of issues Russia wants to discuss and resolve. The national newspaper Kommersant reported how Putin’s statement repeated the issues Russia suggested to the United States as a basis for a joint statement from the summit, but the statement never materialized.
The difference in emphasis between the Russian and American sides on strategic stability indicates the relative importance of the issue to the two administrations. Trump did not even mention it in his comments. Pundits and policymakers should take note of Putin’s statement as well as of the several indications the Russian side are ready to extend New START. The summit was a sign of hope that this may be possible. Issues such as missile defense, the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the militarization of space will be significantly more difficult to make progress on.
The second item on Putin’s wish list was likely restarting dialogue on key international security issues, from Syria, to North Korea, to Iran. The Russian estimate of the likelihood of deliverables on any of these issues was bound to vary: Syria and North Korea are potential areas where common ground can be found, Iran possibly less so. Still, all these issues are important to Russia and serve to demonstrate the weight and validity of Russia’s seat at the table. These and other low-hanging fruit such as counter-terrorism collaboration could serve as lubricant to solidify dialogue when more substantial disagreements materialize.
The third item in the Kremlin’s mind when planning the Helsinki summit may have been inferred from Trump’s recent and erratic behavior at other summits. Could Trump be used to gain concessions on Ukraine or sanctions relief, or contribute further to undermine NATO unity, a long-standing Russian goal? Moreover, could he be exploited materially to further sow disunity in the American polity? This strategic goal was apparently driving the (by now) undeniable effort of Russian state entities to meddle in the American political process. Would Russian strategists think of the Helsinki summit as an opportunity to pursue such auxiliary policy goals?
Although such goals may have been on a Kremlin wish list, its strategists are unlikely to have thought them deliverable at the summit. Trump is no more predictable to Kremlin “politologists” than to any pundit in the United States. His unpredictability and policy oscillation have become one of his key policy traits. Moscow, like any other partner or foe of Trump, must have been unsure of what the results of his impulsiveness and imprecise rhetoric would be at Helsinki, and of how he would spin the event.
Even when his deliberations at NATO last week displayed, once again, his unprecedented ability to sow disunity within the alliance, his continuing that line while meeting Putin could not be taken for granted and serve as a basis for the formulation of Russian positions. Explicitly seeking concessions from Trump would be risky. This is the likely reason Russia stuck to the issues it cares about the most. Kremlin strategists did prepare Putin to stand his ground, however, feeding him detailed information on Mueller’s collusion case to make him try to convince Trump of his positions.
On election meddling and collusion, Russian strategists could not have played Trump any better if they tried. Trump delivered—apparently entirely on his own—a message that would reinforce massive political divisions in the United States. The damage this caused mostly has domestic fallout; Trump’s focus exclusively on collusion rather than on a foreign power meddling in the American democratic process has had enormous impact on the American scene. But the effect bilaterally was also substantial. Trump’s incredible statements provided a unique opportunity for Putin to jump the shark, as it were, and to talk about collusion as way of avoiding talking about meddling.
This focus on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia could mean that if Trump is exonerated on those charges, Putin gets off. Putin was also able to redefine the situation by unilaterally declaring a mutual guarantee that neither the United States nor Russia would meddle in the other’s internal affairs. The foreign policy expert Dmitry Trenin identified such a mutual guarantee of no interference as a possible summit outcome. Agreement on such an approach would place Russian interference in the 2016 US election in a whole new light and would be a major victory for Putin, who has long touted US meddling in Russian politics as a national security threat.
The Russians likely appreciate the limits of the usefulness of Trump’s political divisiveness. These limits became so apparent that Putin rushed to Trump’s aid in regard to Crimea, explaining, when the American president did not, that the United States does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. This relatively factual representation of US policy on Ukraine is highly unusual coming from the Russian president (and in fact was a departure from his prepared remarks, which were much less conciliatory on US Ukraine policy). But after experiencing a set of unbelievable Trumpian surprises in the course of the press conference, even Putin was probably understanding that his luck could run out. All in all, the situation was an unusual one for Putin; the US president was the main target of journalistic questioning.
With his Helsinki performance, Trump may have destroyed any prospects of progress in US-Russia relations because of the seemingly ever-increasing resentment he’s stirred at home. Whether he can cajole his bureaucracy to cede anything to Russia in major negotiations remains an open question. This politically paralyzed situation is a big part of the reason that the United States and Russia remain at loggerheads: Nobody but Trump offers an alternative US solution on how to talk with Russia. The current US policy—no dialogue until the Russians concede on major issues like Crimea and Ukraine—is bound to produce no progress on nuclear arms control, just as it has in the years since 2014. In the strategic stability realm, concessions on both sides will be necessary if progress is to be made.
Many will claim that dialogue with Russia now comes at a price that is too high. Even if Trump were able to force his subordinates to sit down and talk to the Russians, any US concessions without reciprocity would produce a major US backlash. The Helsinki summit may have infused the Russian leadership with renewed confidence and a certain level of smugness, given the manner in which Trump sided with Russia. If the Russians were previously uncertain whether the American president could be manipulated, they have to be more convinced now.
Still, potentially constructive changes in US policy are more important to the Russian leadership than the destruction of the US polity. The implication of Russia in the unravelling of Trump may produce presidential candidates less likely to deliver on the strategic stability outcomes Russia seeks. Putin’s damage control in Helsinki was an attempt to prevent Trump from destroying the prospects of the very dialogue he was hoping to create.