Did Putin Overplay His Hand in Helsinki?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 109

(Source: Getty Images)

The summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last Monday (July 16) continues to generate strong international resonance, despite apparently producing few if any tangible results. In Washington, politicians and experts are at odds about interpreting Trump’s bonhomie with Putin shown at this long-anticipated rendezvous, particularly following the disagreeable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels; but in Moscow, the opinion-makers are exuberant (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 17). The Russian leader seemingly believes that the initial success in making the desired summit happen was multiplied by his out-smarting and out-performing of Trump during their 130-minute face-to-face; and he is now looking to collect the fruits from this apparent victory (Kommersant, July 18). However, such triumphalism both devalues and undermines the breakthrough he presumes to achieve in bilateral relations with the United States.

Putin could have offered some symbolic concessions in Helsinki but did not, relying instead on his skill at handling the mercurial interlocutor and on careful preparations for the unstructured conversation. During the summit talks, he apparently put several suggestions on the table, and now Russian officials have been publicly interpreting them as attained agreements—much to the consternation of the US political establishment (RIA Novosti, July 20). The Russian Ministry of Defense set this tone by asserting, the day after the Putin-Trump meeting, its readiness to implement the purported specific accords reached by the two presidents (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 17). An urgency certainly exists to advance the nuclear arms control agenda, starting with extending the New START treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021. And Moscow now claims that this issue is resolved (TASS, July 18). Yet, Trump, some Russian analysts argue, is reluctant to embrace this major achievement of President Barack Obama and cannot single-handedly dismiss the case of Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty (Russiancouncil.ru, July 11). Putin apparently presumes that his firm rejection of these accusations will make them disappear; recently, instead of clarifying the question of Russia’s dubious Iskander missile tests, which may violate the INF, the Russian military has carried out tests of the air-based version of the same missile, dubbed Kinzhal (TASS, July 18).

The most consequential of Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” (in Trump’s words) denials concerns Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Russian experts now venture cautious opinions about Trump’s mistake in accepting this argument. But in fact, they suggest, Putin tactically miscalculated by so categorically rejecting the mounting evidence of a massive operation, involving the Russian special services (most specifically, military intelligence, known as the GRU) working hand-in-hand with hackers and trolls (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 17). This unyielding stance inevitably draws Putin into the heart of US domestic political turmoil: by ridiculing the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he directly engages in Trump’s battles with his numerous opponents in the US political establishment (RBC, July 17). This forceful support is not at all helpful for Trump, who needs to disassociate himself from the 12 GRU suspects indicted by Mueller on the eve of the summit in Helsinki as well as from any other compromising connections with the Kremlin (New Times, July 17). Nevertheless, Putin has not stopped effectively fighting for the “common cause” alongside Trump, condemning US critics of the “Helsinki spirit” as both malevolently influential and utterly pathetic (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 19).

This defense of the much cherished victory illuminates the fact that it has delivered no tangible results so far, except for what some Russian experts describe as “moral satisfaction” (Valdaiclub.com, July 18). Common ground was allegedly found regarding Syria, where “de-confliction” between the Russian forces and US troops works rather well, despite the ongoing offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces into the Daraa “de-escalation zone,” which was established after the meeting between Trump and Putin in Hamburg a year ago (Vedomosti, July 20). Now, the two leaders ostensibly agree about granting priority to Israel’s security interests (Gazeta.ru, July 17). Moscow, however, cannot make any meaningful commitments regarding the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces and needs to secure Tehran’s approval for every step it takes in the shifting sands of the Syrian war (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18; see EDM, July 18). Moscow’s alliance with Tehran is non-negotiable with Washington because the sustainability of the Russian intervention depends upon cultivating this “brotherhood-in-arms.”

Putin feigned Russian support for Trump’s management of the North Korean problem, playing on the latter’s obvious need to prove the success of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un (Republic.ru, July 17). But in reality, the Kremlin has to follow Beijing’s lead when it comes to relaxing the sanctions regime (which Moscow never liked in the first place), while declaring Russia’s dedication to the ambivalent denuclearization of the Korean peninsula (Forbes.ru, July 13). The only issue where Putin had to cut short Trump’s attempt to have a conversation is Russia’s relations with China. Indeed, the dependency has grown so deep that in China’s looming trade war with the US, Moscow’s space for maneuver is strictly limited by Beijing’s choices and instructions (Russiancouncil.ru, July 17).

Putin is keenly interested in the confusion inside NATO caused by Trump’s pressure to increase the Allies’ defense expenditures and the US President’s apparent ambivalence regarding Article V security guarantees, revealed yet again by his remarks about “aggressive” Montenegro, the newest member of the Alliance (Rosbalt, July 20). The Russian leader has plenty of opportunities for subtly exploiting this confusion, but he instead preferred to issue another blunt warning about the grave consequences of the “irresponsible policy” of accepting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO (Kremlin.ru, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 19). He also apparently tried to sell Trump on the old proposal to stage a referendum in Donbas on the status of this war zone, seeking to show Ukraine that its future can be discussed and decided behind its back (Vedomosti, July 20).

This proposal, along with other “incredible suggestions,” have all been duly rejected by the US government, likely surprising Putin as to why his seemingly successful performance in Helsinki actually turned out to be counterproductive. Instead of granting Trump a “victory” by offering some minor compromises, he opted to play a strong and confident leader—and the predictable backlash has taken him by surprise. The desire to score a public relations triumph prevailed over an elementary assessment of the consequences. And this vanity reveals that Putin is by no means a master-statesman, much the same way as he was a rather unexceptional KGB operative. While intending to harvest dividends from his “beautiful friendship” with Trump, Putin’s political greed all but guarantees further deterioration of US-Russian relations.