Stranger Things in Helsinki

July 23, 2018

History will struggle to know what to make of the U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki. After President Donald Trump’s joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, prominent quarters of the American policy establishment are furious at their president’s comments to the point of suggesting he committed treason. Although the summit was a political victory for Moscow, a number of Russian analysts I’ve spoken to are also concerned that the U.S. president’s remarks, and the political storm that followed, might have offset some of the gains Moscow made. The Russian leadership hoped this meeting would be the first step to stabilizing relations between the two countries, but the press conference turned the summit into a political fiasco. The foreign editor for Kommersant, one of Russia’s most prominent newspapers, noted that Russians found parts of the press conference outright “bizarre.” Rather than a predictable Russian victory, which Moscow was prepared to pocket, things in Helsinki took a turn for the strange.

Trump also went into the summit with the ostensible goal of normalizing bilateral relations, but Helsinki will prove a missed opportunity. It reinforced distrust of the president in Washington, which will make the rest of the government and the policy community less  inclined to re-establish a constructive, or at least not destructive, relationship with Russia .  Trump could not help himself on the question of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, believing any admission of Russian interference was tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of his election. That Putin admitted he preferred Trump to win because he might normalize relations did little for the American president’s credibility. Putin’s seal of approval is akin to the kiss of death in American politics.

Much about the summit confirmed Russia’s long-term strategy for the confrontation, which in a recent War on the Rocks article I categorize as raiding and international brigandry – that is, cost imposition to coerce the United States into a settlement. Russia is not only standing up to the United States in international politics, but also driving a negative agenda so that the United States seeks to stabilize relations to avoid a downward conflict spiral. The goal is to demonstrate that there are real costs to the United States, and the West, for continuing the confrontation, and it’s working on at least one person in Washington, D.C. As the president himself wrote, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

The desire to stabilize relations with Russia is noteworthy, but a leader has to represent his country first. This includes bringing his country’s establishment on board. That’s going to be hard to do if the president blames his own country, and by extension, his own policy community, for the adversarial relationship. Russians find Trump’s flagellation of his own elites odd, but they’re willing to take the win.

The Disaster Artist

A Russian gain was inevitable. Just the optics of such a high-profile meeting were a win for Putin, especially on the heels of successfully hosting the World Cup. He couldn’t lose in any way from this meeting, but there was a broad range of ways in which he might gain. The summit’s substance was less significant compared to the leadership dynamics, although there are already leaks that several proposals were broached, including extending the New START Treaty beyond 2021, a referendum to resolve the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, talks on strategic stability, nonproliferation, the war in Syria, and U.S. concerns about Iran. So it seems the meeting was not without substantive discussion, and in some respects it’s too early to judge whether Trump will make any policy concessions.

But even on the level of “substantive” proposals – setting aside the theatrics – the summit highlighted just how strange things have gotten. For example, in one indecent proposal that could be considered outright trolling, Putin offered that the U.S. Justice Department could sit in on interrogations with indicted GRU intelligence officials in exchange for the opportunity to interrogate former Ambassador Michael McFaul and British businessman Bill Browder. In a sign that today’s reality is stranger than fiction, the White House spent several days considering this idea.

In Politics, Perception is Reality

Moscow didn’t come to the summit for deliverables. Russia’s leadership concluded by last summer that the U.S. president was not empowered to deliver on any of their interests, or even minor grievances like the seizure of diplomatic compounds. Putin made his views clear in September when he said it is “difficult to have a dialogue with people who confuse Austria and Australia,” adding “America is really a great nation and the Americans are a great people if they can endure so many people with such a low level of political culture.” He was referencing George W. Bush’s gaffe from 2007, but the comment was clearly about Trump and America’s current policy establishment. For nearly a year, Moscow has operated under the assumption that the U.S. president has nothing to offer in terms of concrete policy objectives. The summit would invariably prove to be political theater that validated the Russian leader’s brand of personal leadership. Anything more was just an added windfall.

Trump offered no concessions, nor were any expected of him. There is a strong case to be made that his administration has been much harder on Russia than its predecessor. The White House is, in fact, negotiating from a position of relative strength. The Trump administration has sanctioned countless Russians and Russian entities, provided weapons to Ukraine and Georgia, used force against the Assad regime, and substantially increased spending on deterring Russia in Europe. That’s a pragmatic assessment. But the U.S. policy community is deeply ideological and tends to value intangibles above interests. Abstract concepts like the liberal international order, political values, and normative belief structures are more important to many in Washington than empirical pursuits. From the U.S. perspective, the president gave up too much by siding with Putin and the Russian political narrative  on the issue of Russian election interference.

In an ideal universe, the summit should have helped stabilize a competitive relationship between two adversaries, one in which the United States has considerable structural advantages. Unfortunately, the spectacle that unfolded after the closed-door meetings in Helsinki will prove of little service to that cause. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Helsinki to show he was willing to go most of the way to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the time was transforming the Soviet Union and winding down the Cold War. Trump’s siding with Putin’s “incredibly strong and powerful” denial of election meddling, at a time when the U.S.-Russia confrontation is only heating up, appeared to take this sort of gesture to the extreme.

While there was no joint communiqué, none was needed – the U.S. president de facto recognized both Russia’s position on the origins of the confrontation, placing the blame on the United States. The only thing left for the Russian Foreign Ministry to do was to agree with Trump’s tweets. Trump may lack the power to make a great power condominium with Putin, but Russia has already achieved recognition for itself and a terrifyingly successful level of disruption in Washington. Everything about Helsinki tells Moscow that time is on its side, and Russian elites can feel vindicated in yielding nothing.

Trump vs. the Establishment

Although billed as a Cold War-style meeting between adversaries, the sentiments expressed by the two leaders appeared to be more those of allies, making apparent that the U.S. president shares Russia’s vision of the international order as opposed to the longstanding Washington policy consensus. Inarguably, that’s Trump’s right. He was elected, whereas the members of Washington’s foreign policy cottage industries were not. Yet as head of state Trump is visibly on a different page from the state he is charged with leading. The U.S. president is untethered to his own policy establishment, inclined towards the perspective of the adversary, and thus far unable to alter American foreign policy towards Russia. Hence why analysts in both countries found the event bizarre.

However, the establishment’s preferred path – punishing Russia as a substitute for a strategy – is also showing poor returns. The summit unequivocally discouraged Russian acquiescence. Moscow has always sought to be recognized as a co-equal power that meets with the United States to discuss the two countries’ shared special responsibility for international security. Russia craves the status of the Soviet Union during a particular period of the Cold War, the détente of 1969 to 1979, when despite its relative inequality it was validated in international politics as America’s peer. This summit not only ends any pretense at continuing a policy of isolating Russia politically; it also creates the aura of Russia as peer on the international stage.

The U.S. establishment has closed ranks on the issue of confronting Russia, and in fact is likely to further punish the Kremlin for the embarrassment America suffered in Helsinki. Because Trump tried to improve relations, Washington will double down on confrontation, although the policy of incoherent punishment to intensify pressure has no firmer footing than Trump’s notions for normalizing U.S-Russia ties. Today, an unhelpful pluralism characterizes policymaking towards Russia. Congress’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, for example, is an unmitigated disaster, threatening allies and partners with sanctions while taking away any room for the administration to negotiate with Moscow.

Welcome to the Upside Down

Ultimately, nobody besides the translators knows what was said in the one-on-one with Putin, and some in Congress are calling for even that knowledge to be made public. It’s important not to think one summit at a time. Scrambling to survive each political event and making policy in response to crisis is no way to handle great power adversaries. Americans should instead ask big questions about the trajectory of U.S. power and discuss the need to reassess the current international order and find a way forward in the great power competition with Russia.

Moscow believes it has won in Syria. It does not need an American concession to validate facts on the ground. Nor does it need America’s recognition for the annexation of Crimea. Javelins and all, there is no sign of them leaving Ukraine’s Donbas anytime soon. U.S. economic warfare has inflicted genuine damage on the Russian economy, but arguably Russian political warfare has visited just as much punishment on the West. The United States has found no leverage from any of the punishments it imposed. Moscow believes it has the toolkit to impose further costs on Washington, which diminishes the coercive value of the latter’s punishments. Quite simply, people are much less afraid of punishment if they can hurt you back. The summit should be a poignant reminder that the United States is dealing with a power that benches above its weight.

Nothing especially tragic happened at the summit in terms of policy, but it was a misfire in what should be a dual-track approach to Russia, combining confrontation and, where prudent, engagement. American domestic politics threatens to consume any prospective agenda, seemingly impossible to separate from the bilateral relationship and the so-called great power competition. Washington may have overreacted to Trump’s statements while underappreciating the need for a plan to deal with Russia. Russia is not going anywhere, the competition is not going to get easier at some arbitrary future date, and the confrontation needs to be set on a footing that leverages U.S. structural advantages rather than further validating Moscow’s brinksmanship. The goal of summits, and negotiations, should be to bound the competition, as it was during the Cold War. Yet it is impossible to derive value from high-level interactions, and build on lower-level government contacts, given the circus that has become U.S.-Russia relations.

I remain deeply skeptical about what U.S. strategic thinking has to offer when it comes to great power competition. Today it is too ideological, too inexperienced in dealing with rival powers, and intellectually unable to offer a vision for U.S. leadership in a changing international order. If the summit is any indicator of what American diplomacy or statecraft has to offer, we are in even bigger trouble than we thought. The next episode in this series is set for October, when Putin comes to Washington to once again have his foreign policy validated. Of all the ideas about how best to prepare for what may prove to be another spectacle, the Finnish president, spotted getting a drink after the last summit, seems to have the best plan.


Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons