At times, it looked like Russian President Vladimir Putin could hardly contain his excitement.
With the flash of a smile or a curt laugh, Putin broke character as his counterpart, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, showered him with compliments at a press conference following their first-ever summit meeting in Helsinki on July 16. On top of that, Trump unloaded on the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, and Hillary Clinton.
It was an exercise in contrasts. And for the U.S. media and policy establishment, it was all too much. Anger, denouncements, and accusations of high treason characterized the wide-reaching response on the American side. Ask anyone on the Russian side, and the summit was a major success—Putin was finally embraced as an equal partner by a U.S. president.
Asked by reporters how the summit went, Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, beamed that it was “better than super.”
But, in taking a step back, it is clear that little of consequence or permanence took place at the summit. Despite dire predictions in some quarters of Washington, Trump gave away nothing: There has been, at least publicly, no change in U.S. policy on Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, no promises made regarding sanctions, and NATO is still a thing.
“The short-term gain is a symbolic one,” says Alexander Gabuev, a foreign policy analyst at the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Putin appeared to be disciplined, he looked presidential and was seen alongside the U.S. president as an equal and looked much more statesmanlike.”
The only substance of the summit seem to have been verbal commitments to restoring dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers—quite possibly a good thing, especially given that both states are sleepwalking into a newer, scarier nuclear arms race with increasingly creative and high-tech means of wiping out the entirety of both populations.
So, what, then, did the Russians see? Discord between a sitting U.S. president and the so-called policy establishment. A potential wedge. An opportunity. In many ways, the Russian reaction to the summit resembled the exuberant—and, for the record, premature—celebrations seen in Moscow immediately following Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory over Clinton.
“The Helsinki summit was worth it if only to enjoy the reaction of Western politicians, experts and media personalities,” wrote columnist Ivan Danilov in RIA Novosti, one of the main Russian state news agencies. “Judging by the panic and hatred, [Putin] achieved a great success… [he] literally blew up the American information space.”
Commentators like Danilov honed in on a specific facet of Putin’s performance: calling out international boogieman George Soros for interfering in elections across the globe while linking Western financier and self-styled human rights activist Bill Browder to Clinton—a perfect storm of illiberal conspiracy thinking interpreted by some as a nod to Trump’s base.
Others noted the body language between the two presidents. Russians saw Putin nail his well-rehearsed calm and presidential manner, contrasted with Trump’s anxious and rambling delivery. Widely-read tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda went so far as to feature a piece solely analyzing the leaders’ handshakes, and how Putin has improved his performance since last year’s G20 summit. “Trump usually presents his hand from below, hoping to mislead his opponent by signaling he is open to contact, only to pull his hand back to throw you off balance and cause confusion,” psychologist, Alexander Neveev, was quoted as saying in reference to a photo of Trump attempting this maneuver on Putin at the G20.
In a second photo, Trump can be seen offering Putin his hand on even ground, “without any tricks,” Neveev noted. “It shows Putin’s skill in judo, where almost every encounter with an opponent begins with an attempt to throw you off balance.” Putin, he added, had demonstrated that the American president cannot dominate his Russian counterpart.
These signals are of immense importance to Russians, at least in discussions about international politics. Putin’s domestic legitimacy is increasingly rooted in a sense that he has restored Russia as a great and respected international power. So long as he delivers perceived victories, even if those victories come in the form of righteous handshakes, he will be popular. In that sense, Trump’s obsequious performance on Monday may have as much of an effect on Russian domestic politics as on American domestic politics, adding to Putin’s authoritarian hand—already bolstered by Russia’s highly successful hosting of the World Cup—in dealing with his electorate.
Cooler heads in Russia, however, worry that Putin’s victory was too obvious, particularly as investigators in the US are busy indicting Russian military intelligence officers for interference in the 2016 election. Russians may relish Trump and Putin sticking it to the so-called U.S. establishment, but now they must fear that establishment’s wrath.
“The Russian president was obviously out-playing the American president,” commentator Mikhail Rostovsky wrote at the widely circulated tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, comparing the docile Trump in Helsinki to the “rude and boorish” showman who had insulted Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Queen Elizabeth in short order the prior week. ”This filled my heart not only with pride, but anxiety. Out-playing Trump does not mean out-playing the American political class,” Rostovsky wrote, lamenting not only Trump’s timid behavior but Putin’s offensive thrust. “Putin didn’t seek to smooth out acute angles, he deliberately sharpened them.”
This fear of reaction from an alleged U.S. deep state is the principle reason a few commentators urge caution. After all, Russia’s optimism following Trump’s victory was quickly and systematically crushed in the weeks and months that lead to his inauguration, when sanctions failed to be lifted and the new president’s cabinet proved insufficiently pro-Kremlin. In effect, Russians took Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric at face value and, perhaps, projected their own president’s outsized role in domestic affairs onto the American system and expected radical change in spite of traditional U.S. policy toward Russia. Many Russians, according to Gabuev, believe Trump “is rational and understands the importance of building a relationship with Russia. But he is opposed by the Russophobic establishment, including the mainstream media.” It is this experience that some analysts are keeping in mind as they look forward to what comes next in U.S.-Russia relations.
“There is a sense,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow, “that [Trump] again may have spoiled what looked like a modestly successful summit.” He pointed to last summer’s G20 meeting being immediately drowned out by the Russiagate scandal at home. “His dismal performance and the outrage in DC might prevent him from implementing what he may have agreed on with Putin.”
The biggest blowback may come from Putin’s most cunning tack: the proposal to give Special Counsel Robert Mueller access, via Russian law enforcement, to the 12 Russian military intelligence officers named in an indictment last week in exchange for Russian interrogation of financier and human rights campaigner Bill Browder.
“This only made things worse,” Frolov says. Putin’s overbearing performance, mixed with some of the hotter current trends in the so-called Russiagate investigation, could actually increase the risk that Trump would go along with tightening measures against Russia following Mueller’s indictments and the intelligence community’s repeated, firm assertions that Russia did indeed attempt to influence the 2016 election.
Russian celebration, therefore, of Putin’s performance in Helsinki seems split between outright jubilation, and those who worry the victory dance may be premature—too focused on short-term gains and Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric. We’ve seen it all before. On November 09, 2016, Moscow celebrated Trump’s victory with champagne on the floor of the national legislature and election night parties. But when radical pro-Russia change failed to materialize, the lack of follow-through was blamed on the anti-Russian policy establishment in Washington—entrenching the notion that Russia was under assault from a committed U.S.-led international conspiracy against Putin and the people.
Once the euphoria of Putin’s optical triumph over Trump in Helsinki fades, and the reality of the situation again sinks in, it will be this American establishment that Russians blame. None of it will fall on Putin’s lap. However short lived, he brought them victory in Helsinki.