Beyond the Horizon: Who Won in Helsinki?

19.07.2018

Unlike the Cold War summits, such as the Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Reykjavik in 1986 when upon his return home the General Secretary of the Community Party was accused of "surrendering positions" to Washington, now it is the US president that is being accused of "selling out his country." Trump was still in the air on his way home to the United States, when some in Washington accused him of high treason and others of gross incompetence (worse than the summit with Kim, some said), while others logged off social media for a while to process the shock caused by what they consider a defeat for America. Al-Monitor (USA) editor Maxim Suchkov considers whether there really were winners and losers in Helsinki. 

Vladimir Putin has met with the US leaders about 40 times since taking office: 28 times with G.W. Bush, 12 times with Obama and twice – before the summit in Helsinki – with Trump. However, in the modern history of Russia-US relations, the significance of each summit is such that it is invariably elevated to the same plane as major events from the Cold War era. 

The Helsinki summit was no exception. One person compared it to the summit between Khrushchev and Eisenhower during the Soviet leader’s first official visit to the United States in September 1959. There were even more allusions to the summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986. No agreements were signed as a result of that summit. To be fair, though, the respectful relations between the two leaders, the atmosphere of trust and progress in certain areas allowed Moscow and Washington to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) a year later. Gorbachev faced relentless obstruction from the military and other party and public figures for "surrendering positions" to Washington. The summit was called a failure for the Soviet Union, to which the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee retorted, "Reykjavik is not a failure, but a breakthrough ... We got a glimpse beyond the horizon." 

Everything is changed beyond recognition now, 32 years later. For all the conventional historical parallels, the outcome of the recent Russian summit has inflicted a psychological trauma on the US establishment and public opinion more broadly. Now, the other side is unwilling to see a victory for international security in this summit, even though, just like three decades ago, both leaders are talking about the need for the two nuclear powers to come to an agreement. Looking beyond the horizon is exactly what our partners on the other side of the ocean now need to do. But they appear to have become smaller. Washington is even less concerned about the rest of the world than usual, and the entire political agenda with respect to Russia – which, together with the United States, can make the world worse or better from the security perspective – has been reduced to the issue of "interference" in the computer servers of one of America’s political parties. 

Now, the US president is being accused of “selling out the country.” Trump was still in the air on his way home to the United States, when some people in Washington accused him of high treason and others of gross incompetence (worse than the summit with Kim, some said), while others logged off social media for a while to process the shock caused by what they consider a defeat for America. Opposition media – which is what almost all of the mainstream media in the US has long been toward this president – cited sources in the administration claiming that Trump is unable to separate the issues of interference and collusion in his mind. If he acknowledges that interference took place, according to this line of thinking, he will be implicating himself in the collusion charge. 

Following the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers suspected of "election interference," Trump is in fact trying hard to keep these two topics separate. 

Even prior to the summit in Helsinki, and later during the joint press conference with Putin, Trump did not actually deny that interference took place, emphasizing that it was under President Obama’s watch and, if anyone is guilty of inaction in the face of interference, it was his predecessor. At the same time, Trump again bluntly stated that there was no "collusion," he won fairly, having run a "brilliant campaign." The day after his meeting with the Russian leader, perhaps following the advice of his team, Trump appeared to backpedal on what he said during the news conference, acknowledging that Moscow did interfere in the US election. However, this could cause a sensation only to those who have not been listening to what the US president has been saying. Trump has always believed his intelligence community’s assessment that some kind of cyber-hacking on behalf of Russia took place during that period. However, convinced that he won fairly and lacking concrete evidence that the Kremlin and President Putin personally were behind this attack, the US president was ready to turn the page in the interest of improving relations. Yesterday, he simply added to this list of rebuttals that any such "interference" on behalf of Russia had no impact on the outcome of the election. 

However, this will not change the minds of Trump’s opponents, who have inhaled the fumes of the toxic image of Russia they themselves concocted in their information warfare labs. They are not simply unwilling to accept Trump’s frame for keeping these two issues separate, but are convinced that it is the root cause of Trump's desire to engage Russia in a constructive dialogue: "Trump is colluding with Putin against American democracy." 

The eccentric president’s arguments are not always clear, except to his base. Having followed the situation for almost two years now, Moscow thought it had found a "silver bullet" to protect itself against endless Russia-related investigations in the form of Putin's proposal to US Special Counsel Mueller to issue an official request to interrogate the suspects. However, the topic of "Russian interference" has long since been transformed from a major threat to national security, which any foreign interference is, into a politicized weapon used by one side against the other. In this regard, Russia’s proposal only incensed Trump's opponents anew, and the "firewall" separating two opposing camps flared up with a vengeance. 

The behavior of Trump himself – from his remarks to the notorious body language – only added fuel to the fire, and provided fodder for months ahead to those seeking an opportunity to attack. In this sense, the figure of the US president has become an impediment to the idea of ​​normalizing relations. 

In any other circumstances, when talks between two competing powers are a contest of wills, the excellence of their leaders and level of preparation of their teams, Russia could credit itself for the Helsinki summit and hope to build on that success. Even now, Russia can derive moral satisfaction from cementing previously agreed modalities on Syria and a cautious hope for "controlled confrontation." Today, conceptually speaking, this is better than nothing. However, one can hardly hope to build on that success given the circumstances. Trump’s opponents will certainly look for any opportunities to bring even this "trifle" to naught, and the president himself, despite his willingness to sacrifice political capital for the cause of peace, is unlikely to be able to make good on any agreements with Moscow. So, the two countries will not be able to look beyond the horizon any time soon. But most importantly, they should be careful not to build fences too high in the meantime.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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