What was said in the two-hour discussion between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump is known only to the two men and their interpreters. However, on the basis of the press conference, comments from advisors, and official statements it appears that the Helsinki meeting represented a positive, if modest, attempt to establish better relations between the United States and Russia.
Although no concrete progress was announced, the two leaders addressed a number of specific areas of conflict and created an atmosphere in which steps towards closer cooperation can be discussed on a case by case basis. At the present time this is probably the best outcome that can be expected, not least because of Trump’s precarious domestic standing and the toxic cloud of Russophobia that hovers over American society and the American government. Perhaps the most significant development was that both leaders apparently expressed interest in resuming discussions on arms control, building on military- to- military cooperation that has developed in recent years. Indeed, if the meeting did nothing more than facilitate further discussions on the extension of the START treaty beyond 2021 it could be considered a success.
President Putin came to the negotiations from a position of relative strength and confidence. Notwithstanding widespread anger over proposals to raise the retirement age, on the basis of public opinion polls his domestic popularity remains favorable, enhanced by a successful World Cup, the consolidation of Russia’s position in the Middle East as a result of tripartite diplomacy with Assad and Netanyahu, and increasing oil prices partly arising in part from Saudi-Russian cooperation. Helsinki will undoubtedly improve his domestic standing, even in the absence of concrete achievements.
The Helsinki press conference revealed a somewhat more subdued and “diplomatic” Trump than was seen and heard on his first two European stops, in Brussels and the UK. He did not repeat his incendiary criticisms of U.S. allies, NATO, or the EU. Indeed, Angela Merkel (and Putin) will be gratified by his surprisingly temperate remarks on Nordstream 2, with the implication that it could be treated as a factor of commercial competition and not as a political matter, and with no mention of German “captivity.” He could not, however, resist reprising narcissistic (and misleading) boasts about his electoral victory. Although Trump’s attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will enrage his domestic opponents, they were nothing new. Moreover, Trump did not apparently fulfill their worst fears by offering tangible concessions with respect to Syria or sanctions.
Still, Trump’s position is very weak, and his ability to build on even the modest momentum achieved at Helsinki is very limited. Trump remains in dire legal peril, operating under the threat of impeachment or even indictment, including for allegations that have little or nothing to do with Russia. His former campaign manager is imprisoned in solitary confinement; his former NSC advisor has been convicted and awaits sentencing; his personal lawyer and “fixer” is almost certainly anticipating arrest following the seizure of 291,000 documents from his office by the FBI, some of which were reconstructed by agents after having been taken from a shredder.Moreover, Trump’s policies and statements are undermined by his own Executive branch as well as the Legislative branch. Just days before the Helsinki meeting the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russians whom it said were intelligence officers for conspiring to hack into Clinton campaign emails. No evidence was provided, and the indictments were almost certainly timed to embarrass Trump and perhaps derail the summit. At the same time, Congress has become increasingly active in foreign policy, as indicated by its ability in the summer of 2017 to compel Trump to impose sanctions on Russia,, North Korea, and Iran. Even as Trump boarded Airforce 1 en route to Brussels the U.S. Senate voted 97-2 in favor of a Resolution expressing “ironclad” support for NATO and calling on Trump to “deter Russian aggression.”