How Trump gave Putin the upper hand in Helsinki

How Trump gave Putin the upper hand in Helsinki

And just when you think that you have seen almost everything possible in politics, here comes the Trump travel show with a new, unexpected and bizarre surprise. Many political observers in Washington feared a summit between the US president and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, especially a one-on-one meeting. Their view was that a canny and ruthless Putin, who possesses ample experience in international affairs, would outwit and outmanoeuvre the complete diplomatic novice and out-of-sorts Trump. Even in their worst-case scenario it was hard to imagine that the meeting would turn into such a major farce, letting Russian meddling in US elections completely overshadow other pressing issues that affect the entire world. In this European visit, Donald Trump managed to weaken America’s relationship with NATO and consequently the alliance itself; he intervened in British politics to the fury of  Prime Minister Theresa May; he brought out hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of the UK to demonstrate against his visit; and in Helsinki he undermined his own intelligence community. He flew back home facing a barrage of criticism for handing a victory by knockout to the leader of a country that he, only on his way to the summit, described as a foe of the United States.

To be sure, the US president’s European trip yielded one major achievement. For at least a short time, and after many years, he united a very partisan Washington. To his self-inflicted misfortune, a divided American political scene joined forces in condemning his embarrassing pandering to Putin, undermining in the process his own intelligence and security services. In the run-up to the summit in Helsinki both sides had low expectations. Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov may have asserted that “we consider Trump a negotiating partner,” but he added “the state of bilateral relations is very bad. We have to start to set them right.” And Trump in a Twitter outburst, which can now be seen as a precursor to the now infamous post-summit press conference, attested to worsening relations with Russia. However, he blamed his own country for this: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

This provides an insight to what was on his mind prior to meeting Putin. Forget the rumours that the Russians have embarrassing evidence regarding his behaviour; the real issue is the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the allegation that senior people in the Trump campaign conspired with those agents to derail Hillary Clinton’s quest for the White House. Only two days before the meeting between Trump and Putin, Mr Mueller signed an indictment against 12 Russian state agents for “Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States,” accusing them of conducting large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 US presidential race.

It left Putin more confident than he has been for a long time that ... he can continue with his aggressive policies and interference in other countries’ affairs with complete disregard for international laws and conventions

Yossi Mekelberg

There is no expectation that Russia will hand over its operatives to the US to face trial, but it is widely acknowledged by those in charge of the investigation, and by most people on the US political scene, that there was indeed such meddling in the presidential elections. Moreover, at least 12 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign or the subsequent transition period, and four have already been indicted including Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman. It is therefore not particularly astonishing that Trump would prefer Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian interference in the elections over the findings of his own intelligence agencies, and also blame what he calls “Mueller’s witch hunt” for the deteriorating relations between the two countries. Trump was selling indulgences to Putin very cheaply and exonerating an aggressive Russia.

There is nothing wrong with reflecting on one’s own country’s handling of foreign affairs. Yet to stand next to a serial human rights abuser – who has annexed part of a neighbouring country and occupied another part of it, who has allegedly sent secret agents to poison his enemies abroad and who is supporting the murderous regime in Damascus – and accept the strength of his denials as evidence of truth, is to break new ground in lack of judgment. Putin must have left the press conference laughing all the way back to his Kremlin office, knowing that he had got exactly what he wanted from the American president: an incoherent, defensive and divisive put-down of his own country and allies.

The world was left guessing and picking up clues from media interviews, as to whether issues such as the Crimea, or Russia’s role in Syria including allowing Iran’s menacing forces to take key strategic positions there, or addressing the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which expires in 2021, or trade relations, were discussed at all. Uncharacteristically for such summits, no joint communique was issued. It left Putin more confident than he has been for a long time that the sanctions imposed on his country following the invasion of the Crimea will be lifted sooner rather than later, and more generally that he can continue with his aggressive policies and interference in other countries’ affairs with complete disregard for international laws and conventions.

The Helsinki summit reinforced the view that in this period of increasing threats to world stability, rising nationalistic-populism, regional conflicts and US-induced trade wars, a resurgent Russia is feeling empowered by a divided and leaderless democratic-liberal world. It senses the opportunity to take advantage of EU and NATO internal squabbling: some of this is fuelled by Washington, some by Russia and in the case of the EU much of it is self-inflicted. The Russians are bound to perceive this lack of direction, conviction and leadership on both sides of the Atlantic as an opportune moment, and might reach the conclusion that it is their time again.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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