It could have been a successful summit. The two leaders obviously wanted the conversation to go well and to be able to report that they had taken the first steps toward repairing a badly deteriorated relationship. In their two-hour one-on-one exchange they appeared to touch on all of the issues of concern to one or the other side—Ukraine, Syria, Iran and the Iranian nuclear deal, nuclear arms control, election interference, and terrorism—and each man, by all indications, made his case calmly and respectfully.
Nothing suggests they advanced specific ideas that would change the frozen state that most of these issues are in, and the two-page joint statement on areas of potential cooperation reportedly prepared by the Russian side in advance of the meeting went nowhere. But steps were floated, including some that if shorn of unacceptable preconditions or traps, could open a small crack of hope. Given their mutual concern over terrorism, President Putin urged the revival of the joint counter-terrorism working group. They appeared to wrestle with ways the two countries could lower the risk of conflict between Israel and Syria. Before and during the meeting the Russian side indicated a readiness to commit now to a five-year extension of the New START agreement when it expires in 2021. They acknowledged the need to find a way to save the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty (INF). On the election interference issue, Putin suggested that experts on the two sides could confront together the evidence of such cyber activity were the cyber security group that was discussed at the Hamburg summit created. They agreed in principle to a “high-level working group” among business executives to explore possible avenues of economic cooperation despite the current sanctions regime.
They evidently also discussed a Russian proposal to create an “expert council” of “political scientists, prominent diplomats, and former military experts” to discuss the underlying sources of mistrust between the two countries and a path putting their relations on a more positive “trajectory.” If this is meant to constitute the basis for a strategic dialogue, were it to come about and be taken seriously by leadership on both sides, it would be a critical first step allowing them to stop digging and start looking for a way out of the hole the two countries are in.
So, there was, indeed, the potential for a modestly successful summit in Helsinki. And the Russian side may consider it a success merely because it was civil and the U.S. side, particularly President Putin’s counterpart, seemed genuinely interested in improving relations. But viewed from a broader and more basic perspective, the summit is a failure, and for the most bizarre reason.
Trump, quite unintentionally, sabotaged it. His twisted psychology that makes it impossible for him to separate the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election from the question of whether he or his team colluded with the Russian effort produced his spectacularly inapt response to a reporter’s question during the press conference. As a result, in the United States and among European allies, everything else that happened in Helsinki is buried under a furious cloud of recrimination over Trump’s betrayal of U.S. interest and values. His shaken supporters feebly invoke some of what might be seen as the potentially promising results of the summit, but their case is swamped by the outcry.
All of this has led not merely to put the summit in very bad political odor in the United States, but to motivate his enraged critics in the Congress to weigh measures to further punish Russia that are, in fact, perversely primarily designed to punish Trump. And for good measure Trump’s misstep at the summit and continued bungling of the issue in the days since appear likely to make the call for a harder line toward Russia an election issue from now until November.
Perhaps, if members of the Administration are determined, they will be able quietly and patiently to follow up on some of the ideas broached at the summit. And it was noted that representatives of the two countries’ national security councils will carry on the effort to make progress on the principal stumbling blocks in the relationship. But any and all of this will occur in an overwhelming toxic atmosphere, now made worse by what happened in Helsinki.