1. Once upon a time in Helsinki
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 19.07.2018
Baltic Europe USA Russia
* Was Helsinki really a big win for Russia? And defeat for Europe?
Heading home from Helsinki on that hot July evening, the Russian delegation must have had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin managed to find some common ground on a number of policy issues, which was good.
On the other hand – the presidents’ position on the question of Russian interference in the US elections was too common, too prominent, and too emotional. It even bordered on the desperate. And that was a problem – as this commonality that made Washington establishment explode in fury might potentially erode any progress that Moscow was hoping to make.
Moscow’s agenda for the meeting
When preparing for the meeting, one of the underlying assumptions among the Russian foreign policy establishment was that the Republican Party was slowly starting to accept Trump; and the issue of Russian election meddling would soon stop tarnishing Trump’s legitimacy, at least in Republican eyes. “There was meddling, but no collusion,” was Moscow’s reading of emerging GOP thinking.
This perceived shift in the Republican Party raised the stakes for Moscow. It is true that on a symbolic level the mere fact of the Helsinki meeting was already a success, as it signalled the end of Russia’s isolation.
But in terms of real policy and agreements, any progress was always dependent on Trump’s status at home. The Republican rapprochement with Trump would allow agreements to be implemented. The (hoped-for) consensus that “there was no collusion” would mean that US-Russia relations would no longer be deadlocked, hostage to the ongoing investigation and to a domestic power struggle in the US.
Conscious of the fragility of relationships on the US side, Moscow crafted its meeting agenda carefully. Its intention was to refrain from asking for anything that Trump could not deliver.
Equally, the Russians wished to avoid anything that could have be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and the Republican mainstream – such as compromises on Ukraine or lifting sanctions, which cannot be done without Congress. In this respect, the Europeans’ worst fears – that Trump could “give away Ukraine” – were always misplaced.
Instead of ‘progress’ on Ukraine, Moscow expected detailed talks on Syria, some opening on arms control issues, and an unwritten agreement to arrest any further decline in bilateral relations – such as more mutual expulsions of diplomats and further escalation of sanctions.
Most of these things the meeting seems to have delivered – and so all would have been well for Moscow, if only the two presidents could have maintained their self-control when asked about election interference.
The old obsessions surface
If one trusts the pre-summit gossip in Moscow, the ‘script’ to tackle the election issue was rather different from what unfolded. Trump was expected to announce that he had been “very tough on Russia,” so now Russia “promised not to intervene any more.”
- This would have been a ‘big win’ Trump could have taken home. Putin would have stuck to the line that “we have never intervened and are not planning to.” People in Moscow hoped that – provided that the midterm elections pass without interference – this could be the way for the meddling question to move towards closure and shed some of its political tinderbox power.
- As it happened, Trump was psychologically unable to dissociate his own legitimacy from the meddling issue. This in turn seems to have unhinged Putin, who now failed to remain tight-lipped and launched himself into a tirade against a variety of people he dislikes.
- The outcome is not exactly what Moscow had sought. Prominent Republicans set about criticising Trump in the harshest of terms and the ‘Russia question’ has gained renewed toxicity in Washington. This makes the follow-up to the talks much more complicated than it would otherwise have been.
Also, Moscow may have hoped to ensure Trump became personally invested in good relations with Putin so that he would find it difficult to reverse course. But by siding publicly with Trump against the US establishment, Putin made also himself personally invested. Now it may be just as hard for the Russian president to reverse course, even when it would be in his country’s interest to do so. Putin, as we have seen, can be irrationally loyal.
That way, by veering off the course their establishments at home had laid out for them, the presidents may have put in danger any agreements they reached during the talks.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu