A strange summit in Helsinki

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Vladimir Putin has always wanted to appear to the world as an “equal partner” of the American president. But he never forgets that there are three partners in this tango – the two presidents, and American public opinion.

This approach was evidenced during the summit press conference, the only moment to feed hungry reporters and political circles due to the chosen formula – a tête à tête, with just the translators, and no final communique. In consequence, both expected to be grilled by Russian and American reporters. The difference is that Putin was exposed – and well prepared – to sharp questions put only from Americans, while Trump’s responses, in usual Trumpian style, raised the red flag among his national reporters hungry to squeeze him more and more. Putin and the Russian foreign ministry, well aware of the political turmoil surrounding Trump in both Washington Brussels, had obviously decided to enjoy the exposure of the difference of political maturity between the two men, while refraining from remarks or even body language which would expose Trump to ridicule or embarrass him. Hence the tone of Putin, who abstained of the sharp remarks he has been able to indulge in other circumstances, and even volunteered to say that yes, indeed, they discussed Crimea.

This is not infatuation with Trump himself, but a question national interests well understood.

Nobody in Russia expected “results” from this summit: the important thing was that it took place, that the international community would see Putin as an equal with the American president, that there were no lectures on the way Russia ought to be governed. This was a meeting not a summit, agreeing on the need for further cooperation in fields of mutual interests, but without any commitments or ‘road maps’.

During the press conference, Putin surprisingly volunteered to refer to his past in the intelligence while opposing questions about Russia’s intervention in American elections – he does not believe in dossier because he knows how to build one, he said. But generally speaking Russians are taking Trump for what he is: a businessman, going after a deal rather than driven by geopolitics, out of tune with the Washington political establishment, and with a personal style entailing the risk of overdoing his anti-elitist tirades to cajole his electorate.

On the contrary, Russia is fully in geopolitics, while Putin, contrary to Trump, does not risk to find himself losing control of legislative assemblies or institutions. This capacity can explain the fascination of the American president for his Russian colleague. But the Kremlin learned in Ukraine the danger of overplaying its cards.

In consequence, the Russian diplomats were happy to see the performance of their president, but they knew the danger that any sign of concessions made by Trump to Putin’s Russia would rattle not only Democrats, but also Republicans who have always distrusted the USSR and then Russia. They can share the same outcry across parties, and unite against the president Trump AND Russia, as it happened after the extraordinary declarations of Trump during the recent NATO summit.

Russians know, too, that president Trump can change position in a few minutes. Indeed, faced with the furore in Washington and even accusations of treason, his return to the White House was marked by a rectification: yes, he was recognising Russian interference during the elections; but, that did not change the result.

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