The Helsinki Summit – Can the Election-Interference Shadow Be Lifted?

The Helsinki summit between Presidents Putin and Trump was their first full-scale meeting. It yielded no joint statement, unlike last month’s get-together between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. All that is known for the moment – until the leaks start in Washington and Trump’s Twitter machine springs into motion – is what little the two leaders divulged in their joint press conference. The pair called for “constructive dialogue” without revealing any concrete results from the talks, other than plans for aides to follow up. They did hint at progress toward an understanding over Syria, presumably involving mutual acceptance of continuance of the Assad regime and Russian restraints on Iran, which Trump indicated would be packaged for domestic consumption as protection of Israel. There was only glancing reference to that summit staple, nuclear arms control, and clear evidence of continued disagreement over Iran and Ukraine (though not over North Korea).

What most distinguished this summit from its dozens of predecessors was the shadow cast over the proceedings by American domestic politics. Specifically, of course, this meant the bitter conflict over allegations that representatives of the Russian government interfered to the benefit of candidate Trump in the 2016 presidential election, mainly by cyber means, and that they did so in collaboration with the Trump campaign. Only one of the six questions American journalists asked at the July 16 press conference was about a conventional foreign-policy topic, Ukraine. Three out of six were about the electoral scandal. And two were about political issues linked to the intra-American debate over Trump and his views – the veracity of his tweets blaming U.S. administrations for the deterioration in relations, and whether the Russian security services possessed kompromat on Trump dating back to past business visits to Moscow. On both occasions, Trump himself changed the subject back to the 2016 election, denying collusion between his campaign managers and the Russians and revisiting recent Congressional testimony by FBI agent Peter Strzok and the “total witch hunt” of the ongoing investigation.

The one intriguing suggestion that came out of the back-and-forth was made by President Putin. Asked about the possibility of Russia extraditing the twelve Russian intelligence officers indicted by Robert Mueller last week, he recommended that the countries make use of a bilateral treaty on “mutual assistance on criminal cases,” signed in 1999 and ratified in 2002. The treaty does not provide for extradition but for various forms of cooperation between prosecutors; it also contains a huge loophole, an article providing for denial of a request for cooperation if “the execution of the request would prejudice the security or other essential interests of the Requested Party.” Members of the Mueller team, Putin said said, might be allowed to travel to Russia and interrogate the indicted Russian military men, in the company of Russian counterparts. He then complicated the picture by stipulating that any Russian response to a future U.S. request be reciprocated by U.S. assistance in investigating an American of Americans suspected of wrongdoing by Russian authorities. Such targeted reciprocity is in no way necessitated by the 1999 treaty. Moreover, the legal target Putin singled out – hedge fund manager William Browder, who made millions in post-Soviet Russia before being blacklisted in 2005 – raises thorny questions of its own. For starters, Browder has been a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom since 1998, when he renounced his American passport to lower his tax bill. He is a controversial figure, despised in the Russian establishment and revered in some sections of the American. The position of Putin and his aides for some time is that Browder and his companies criminally evaded Russian income tax before 2005. In 2009, as is well known, Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant in one of Browder’s firms, died of medical neglect in Moscow’s Matrosskaya tishina prison. It was this event that precipitated passage of the U.S. “Magnitsky bill” of 2012 sanctioning identified human-rights abusers in Russia. Lobbied for by the already ex-American Browder, the bill deeply resented by the Kremlin, which retaliated with a law forbidding Americans from adopting Russian children. In 2013 a Moscow judge convicted Browder in absentia of tax evasion, and in 2017 prosecutors charged him with commissioning the murder of Magnitsky, in cahoots with Britain’s espionage agency, MI6.

Although Putin’s linkage of the two issues may seem clever, it is not likely to get him very far. Rightly or wrongly, American lawmakers and many in the executive branch will refuse to make the connection. Revisiting the Magnitsky story, moreover, will stir up associations with the strand in Russian conduct that is, in the most charitable interpretation, opaque and indifferent to the sufferings of individuals. President Trump seemed to nod in agreement when Putin floated the idea at the Helsinki press briefing. I suspect it was sprung on the American side with little or no advance warning, perhaps with an eye to exploiting Trump’s inexperience and shallow knowledge of foreign affairs. Whether that is true or not, and whatever one thinks of Browder and the sad Magnitsky affair, implementation of the Putin scheme will be a hard sell in Washington and in the American media.

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