Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
No Matter What Happens in Helsinki, Putin Has Already Won
No Matter What Happens in Helsinki, Putin Has Already Won

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.

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.

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.

No Matter What Happens in Helsinki, Putin Has Already Won

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a flair for understated drama. When he met with Donald Trump last July, his cool gaze at the floor contrasted with the more animated gestures of the U.S. president. And so when the two meet again on Monday, Putin is unlikely to greet Trump with a bouquet of flowers as he did German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May. But the Helsinki summit will nonetheless be a contest of theatrical power projection—and it’s one that Putin has perhaps already won.

The game Putin plays is not so much about practicing diplomacy or striking deals; it is about optics, both at home and abroad. Trump often seems to be playing a similar game—but Putin is by far the more experienced player. The fact that a state summit—the first between the two—is happening at all allows Putin to portray himself to Russians as indispensable to the U.S. president in resolving the world’s crises. Russian state television will revel in showcasing the country’s leader—fresh from hosting the World Cup—on an equal footing with the most powerful man in the world.

Moscow’s foreign policy advisers believe Putin is highly unlikely to score concessions from Trump on any of the major conflicts in which the two countries are involved. In private correspondences, they dismiss rumors of a breakthrough on Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014 to U.S. and global fury; or of Trump pledging any meaningful support for Russia (re)joining the G-8, the club of industrialized nations from which it was expelled after the Crimea invasion; or of the two presidents striking a lasting deal on Syria.

Trump might be an atypical U.S. leader. He may even make statements suggesting he would recognize Russian’s seizure of Crimea. But most observers in Moscow accept that—on Russia at least—he is still constrained by a Congress and foreign policy establishment deeply suspicious of Putin.

Moreover, Russia and the US have diametrically opposed perspectives on Ukraine, and, indeed, on what the Kremlin genuinely views as its sovereign right to throw its weight around within its historic sphere of influence. This view, in many respects, underpinned both its annexation of Crimea and its incursion into eastern Ukraine, contributing toward a conflict that has claimed 10,000 lives. Indeed, Russian and U.S. officials close to bilateral talks on a potential peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine—arguably the best, if slim, hope of resolving the conflict in that region—describe the talks in private conversations as though both sides are operating in different realities.

For now, nor does it appear likely that the two presidents will cut any meaningful deal on Syria. Trump may have little sympathy for what remains of the rebels fighting Bashar Assad, who is backed by Moscow. But Trump’s main ask on Syria would likely be for Russia to curtail Iran’s role on the ground. The Kremlin has previously agreed that all foreign forces should leave Syria, by which it means that Iranian and Russian forces would leave only when all other foreign forces—which range from jihadists to Turkish troops—do so too. The two presidents might repeat similar pledges next week. But such statements will have no impact on the ground. Russia has no interest in the departure of Iranian forces, which are critical to Assad’s ability to reconquer the whole country. And Moscow probably has only a very limited ability to get them to leave even if it wanted to.

So if, in principle, the Kremlin might wish for a grand bargain—a Yalta 2.0, as has long been the case—in which the U.S. would recognize the annexation of Crimea in return for Russian support against Iran in Syriain reality few Russian officials expect such a deal.

More likely is that Putin will look to get something else entirely out of Trump: the appearance of being the adult in the room. Trump’s pattern of incendiary and self-contradictory statements makes Putin look polished by comparison. That is just the image the Russian president wants to project. The choreography can work in many ways: get Trump to drop another offhand remark about recognizing Crimea’s annexation, stopping NATO exercises in Europe, or allowing Russia back into the G8. Any one of those would mean Putin will look to be playing the U.S. president. All the better if Trump makes statements about Eastern Europe or NATO that sow discord and confusion within Western alliances. Meanwhile, there’s little harm for Putin if Trump starts talking tough: Putin gets to look statesmanlike next to an unpredictable world leader who just contradicted himself.

Some agreement may well come out of the summit—a statement on Syria or pledges to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism, for example. But such deals would be the type of token understandings that make Putin look conciliatory without committing to much.

There are many reasons why Putin relies on optics and power projection. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russians have felt palpable insecurity about the country’s status as a global power. Putin’s support at home hinges on his ability to project power abroad. Moscow’s haphazard meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, for instance, appears likely to have aimed at proving—with plausible deniability—that it could make life difficult for Hillary Clinton and undercutting the legitimacy of her win rather than necessarily delivering the White House to Trump.

The result? The Kremlin gets to present the U.S. as decayed and dysfunctional, while projecting itself at home and abroad as a force to be reckoned with—a potential fixer of problems that, more often than not, it helped create in the first place.

In private, Kremlin insiders say that Moscow prefers dealing with Republican presidents, who ordinarily prize realpolitik above liberal democratic values. Trump has proven to be neither an artist of the deal nor heavy on values. But at least Moscow can take advantage of the fact that whatever Trump is trying to do, Putin already looks better doing it.


Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.