Contrary to the worst fears, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the two controllers of 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons, did not fall out badly and Trump did not concede a Soviet-era sphere of influence to Russia. But their unprecedented meeting in Helsinki has still given a win to the Kremlin and sent shockwaves through the United States, with effects on American foreign and domestic policy that will play out over the coming weeks and months.
Just by getting the summit held, the Kremlin scored a post-World Cup goal – the event, at least for a while, puts Russia on a par with the United States in terms of political weight, a key Russian objective.
The press conference afterwards was also notable for the contrast between the almost total absence of substance from the American side, the long list from the Russian side and the warm, if awkward, words of praise exchanged. The need for arms reduction, cooperation on Syria and more trade were all glossed over, for the simple reason that they are either unachievable or the two sides disagree.
Absent from the show entirely was any word on sanctions; on Russian responsibility for its proven involvement in the downing of MH-17, whose fourth anniversary was the day after the summit; and the Novichok poisonings in the UK.
Inevitably, Russia’s state-controlled media is claiming victory. This is important for Donald Trump, with midterms ahead of him, but it is as important for Vladimir Putin, fresh from his re-coronation in March. Putin’s approval rating has slipped, slightly, from just over 70% to just under – astronomical in the West, but too low for comfort in Russia. Success abroad is a tried and tested recipe for increasing popularity, and putting one over on the US president qualifies.
In sum, Putin has ceded nothing – territory, claims on territory or force posture. He has denied everything, and been blamed for nothing. The Russian president performed with discipline (as always) and predictably outplayed his opponent. The only area where he could have wished for more would have been for Trump to reiterate his recent statement that Crimea should conceivably be part of Russia. That didn’t happen and Putin was forced to say that it was area of disagreement.
So most of Vladimir Putin’s Christmases came at once, just not quite all of them.
In the United States, the Helsinki summit has (unsurprisingly) generated an overwhelmingly negative response. Many core concerns that have dominated the Trump presidency were brought into stark relief in Helsinki. Even some of the most ardently pro-Trump media commentators have cancelled their appearances, seemingly unable to support the president.
There can be little doubt that Trump’s entire foreign tour has been driven by the ambition to wreck, destroy and break up existing arrangements. The only thing that Trump has aimed to repair or restore is his, and possibly America’s, relationship with Putin. Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of America’s intelligence agencies and its democracy.
Trump’s ambitions to reset relations with Russia are not novel. Obama initially hoped for the same. But ongoing investigations of Trump and his supporters, and of Russia, have constrained Trump’s abilities to change the course of the relationship.
To be clear, few should really be surprised. There has been ongoing suspicion of Trump’s real motives. Some in the United States have spent the past 18 months puzzled by his apparent affinity for Putin. Others have taken a more sinister view, assuming this is driven by the president’s interest in covering up any evidence of collusion on electoral meddling.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s announcement of indictments against 12 Russians for meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections were made public just a few days before the Helsinki summit. This generated intense disagreement as to whether the summit should even go ahead. Many people have faulted Trump for being too eager to meet Putin.
But Trump has been consistent in his preference for talking with tough leaders. Many agree, even people who deeply oppose Russia’s foreign policy: it is important, even essential, to talk with leaders, and even more important to talk with difficult leaders. There is undoubtedly merit in this view, but with Trump at the helm, even those who prefer talks have been very wary. And few of the usual safeguards that ensure a degree of vetting have been in place. In his meeting with Putin, Trump refused to allow note takers in the room for almost 90 minutes.
In Helsinki, Trump’s affinity for Putin was paired, even more directly than in the past, with his disregard for the US intelligence community and its Russia investigations. What fundamentally changed on this occasion and generated an intense backlash among foreign policy elites in the US was Trump’s willingness to take this show on the road – that is, to align himself with Putin, and against America’s intelligence agencies while overseas.
Even worse was reporting that Trump had called the European Union a ‘foe’ hours before embracing a leader widely recognized as having illegally annexed Crimea, and on the heels of the Russia indictments.
It seems unlikely the overwhelming and intensely negative reaction to Helsinki among Democrats and Republicans will cause Trump to reverse his Russia stance. But though Trump has already been remarkably constrained in policy terms when it comes to Russia and NATO, Trump’s Helsinki remarks will put many of his supporters, and those who have been willing to tolerate him, in a difficult position. Already, many less than usual suspects (like Newt Gingrich) are criticizing him.
Will this alter Trump’s prospects at home? At some level, Trump has his eye on the outcomes of midterm elections in November. Neither Helsinki, nor the NATO summit, nor his UK travels seem set to dramatically alter his approval ratings, or the outcome of the midterms. Regardless how much bad press Trump receives for his foreign policies, these do not so far seem to have had any real effect on his popularity.
In fact, Trump’s messaging on Russia and on NATO have managed to shift public attitudes. This is a key, not a marginal point. Trump’s base has become more accepting of Russia. Some of this is not bad – prior to the summit, there was a greater acceptance that talking is important, even with tough leaders.
Trump supporters, though, have also grown more sceptical of the value of NATO. This seems to be driven simply by Trump’s rhetoric, which stands in stark contrast to past American presidents. Trump’s plan may simply be to continue his rhetorical campaign against the conventional wisdoms of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy. Ultimately his ability to shift public attitudes, if only among a narrow segment of the population, could create a semblance of legitimacy for more consequential shifts in America’s foreign policy commitments.