Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin

The chummy joint news conference of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki seemed to suggest that the Russian president had scored a major victory over his U.S. counterpart in their one-on-one meeting on July 17. Indeed, the optics could go a long way toward fulfilling Putin’s purposes: he badly wants the Kremlin to be seen as the White House’s equal on the world stage.

But in the summit’s aftermath it appears that Trump’s coziness with Putin could actually undermine Russia’s prospects of realizing substantive gains from the summit.

The Russians had modest expectations, seeing the summit as primarily an opportunity to display Putin as an equal to the U.S. president, but it also presented at least a slim chance to open up much-needed channels of bilateral dialogue on everything from Syria to the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine in 2014. Both the confrontation between Russia and the West following the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections have narrowed these channels, to say the least: the two sides are communicating, but with mistrust compounded by confusion over U.S. diplomatic positions.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, does talk often with his Russian opposite number, General Valery Gerasimov, particularly about deconfliction in Syria. But a rider in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act prohibits “bilateral military-to-military cooperation” with Russia as a result of its actions in Ukraine in 2014. Although the prohibition can be waived by the U.S. secretary of defense, there has been little contact between the two countries’ ministers or legislators.

Immediately after the summit, Moscow seemed to hope things were looking up. The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying it was “ready to intensify contacts with American colleagues at the level of the General Staffs and through other available channels of communication to discuss the extension of the START treaty, the interaction in Syria and other topical issues of military security.” Russian state-run news reports on the Helsinki meeting cited “agreements” ostensibly reached between Putin and Trump. Such “agreements” could be a useful first step in widening the bilateral dialogue. But because there appears to have been very little internal preparation and goal setting on the U.S. side, and very little internal communication afterward about what happened at Helsinki, U.S. officials struggled in the days following the summit to understand what had been agreed to, much less how to implement any agreements that might have been reached.  

The combination of suspicion about Trump’s motives and confusion about his actions is such that some in Congress have made unprecedented calls to question Trump’s translator about what transpired in the closed-door meeting with Putin. Amid the hubbub, U.S. defense secretary James Mattis hinted at the possibility of meeting with his counterpart, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, but made no commitment to do so.

The hesitancy should not be surprising. With his widely panned performance in Helsinki, Trump has made rapprochement with Russia more toxic than usual among the American political class. The backlash has yet to include concrete consequences, but for the time being, few U.S. politicians other than the president are embracing closer ties with Russia. At the Pentagon, there is bewilderment at Trump’s seeming embrace of a country named in the National Security Strategy as a “revisionist power” out to “shape a world antithetical” to U.S. interests and stated values. And while public discussion of new sanctions legislation flared only briefly after the Helsinki visit, the closer Trump draws to Moscow, the more Congress may feel tempted to send Moscow a disapproving signal by taking matters into its own hands.

In Moscow, this state of affairs causes considerable frustration. On the one hand, many policymakers echo Trump’s remarks that his Washington detractors are out to undermine what should be welcome attempts at warmer bilateral relations. But if it really was Trump’s intention to strengthen ties with Russia, then he “fared badly,” one policy adviser here remarked. “It’s not that there was a lot of desire to increase contact in the U.S. establishment to begin with. Trump—and Putin only played along—made this only worse.” On the other hand, these same policymakers often say that Russia would benefit from closer contact not just at the presidential level but at the congressional and ministerial levels as well. Ahead of the summit, in fact, observers touted the Moscow visit of a delegation of Republican senators as exactly what is needed.

But even from the Russian perspective, there is a disconnect between these objectives. If the aim is to rebuild institutional links between Moscow and Washington, then the appearance that has been created—that Putin has expertly manipulated Trump—may in the medium term do the Kremlin a disservice. Putin’s proposal to hold a joint referendum on the conflict in eastern Ukraine may have been intended as a test of Trump’s flexibility, but now that it has been made public, Kremlin advisers recognize there is little chance the issue will be discussed further.

There is an expression in Russian—medvezhya usluga, “a bear’s service”—describing a gesture that appears well-meaning but ultimately does more harm than good. Putin should hope that Trump has not done him that sort of favor with his overtures, making him look good momentarily but sabotaging the substantive dialogue Russia is after.

Anna Arutunyan is a Senior Analyst for Russia at International Crisis Group. A former Kennan Institute fellow and a former journalist, her work has appeared in USA Today, ECFR, Foreign Policy, and The Moscow News. She has authored several books on Russia, including The Putin Mystique.
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