Was Helsinki really a big win for Russia? And defeat for Europe?
Heading home from Helsinki on that hot July evening, the Russian delegation must have had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin managed to find some common ground on a number of policy issues, which was good. On the other hand – the presidents’ position on the question of Russian interference in the US elections was too common, too prominent, and too emotional. It even bordered on the desperate. And that was a problem – as this commonality that made Washington establishment explode in fury might potentially erode any progress that Moscow was hoping to make.
Moscow’s agenda for the meeting
When preparing for the meeting, one of the underlying assumptions among the Russian foreign policy establishment was that the Republican Party was slowly starting to accept Trump; and the issue of Russian election meddling would soon stop tarnishing Trump’s legitimacy, at least in Republican eyes. “There was meddling, but no collusion,” was Moscow’s reading of emerging GOP thinking.
This perceived shift in the Republican Party raised the stakes for Moscow. It is true that on a symbolic level the mere fact of the Helsinki meeting was already a success, as it signalled the end of Russia’s isolation. But in terms of real policy and agreements, any progress was always dependent on Trump’s status at home. The Republican rapprochement with Trump would allow agreements to be implemented. The (hoped-for) consensus that “there was no collusion” would mean that US-Russia relations would no longer be deadlocked, hostage to the ongoing investigation and to a domestic power struggle in the US.
Conscious of the fragility of relationships on the US side, Moscow crafted its meeting agenda carefully. Its intention was to refrain from asking for anything that Trump could not deliver. Equally, the Russians wished to avoid anything that could have be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and the Republican mainstream – such as compromises on Ukraine or lifting sanctions, which cannot be done without Congress. In this respect, the Europeans’ worst fears – that Trump could “give away Ukraine” – were always misplaced.
Instead of ‘progress’ on Ukraine, Moscow expected detailed talks on Syria, some opening on arms control issues, and an unwritten agreement to arrest any further decline in bilateral relations – such as more mutual expulsions of diplomats and further escalation of sanctions. Most of these things the meeting seems to have delivered – and so all would have been well for Moscow, if only the two presidents could have maintained their self-control when asked about election interference.
Europeans’ worst fears – that Trump could “give away Ukraine” – were always misplaced
The old obsessions surface
If one trusts the pre-summit gossip in Moscow, the ‘script’ to tackle the election issue was rather different from what unfolded. Trump was expected to announce that he had been “very tough on Russia,” so now Russia “promised not to intervene any more.” This would have been a ‘big win’ Trump could have taken home. Putin would have stuck to the line that “we have never intervened and are not planning to.” People in Moscow hoped that – provided that the midterm elections pass without interference – this could be the way for the meddling question to move towards closure and shed some of its political tinderbox power.
As it happened, Trump was psychologically unable to dissociate his own legitimacy from the meddling issue. This in turn seems to have unhinged Putin, who now failed to remain tight-lipped and launched himself into a tirade against a variety of people he dislikes.
The outcome is not exactly what Moscow had sought. Prominent Republicans set about criticising Trump in the harshest of terms and the ‘Russia question’ has gained renewed toxicity in Washington. This makes the follow-up to the talks much more complicated than it would otherwise have been.
Also, Moscow may have hoped to ensure Trump became personally invested in good relations with Putin so that he would find it difficult to reverse course. But by siding publicly with Trump against the US establishment, Putin made also himself personally invested. Now it may be just as hard for the Russian president to reverse course, even when it would be in his country’s interest to do so. Putin, as we have seen, can be irrationally loyal.
That way, by veering off the course their establishments at home had laid out for them, the presidents may have put in danger any agreements they reached during the talks.
Where does all this leave Europe?
While the US is boiling with anger at its own president, it makes sense to ask where all this leaves Europe. Was the meeting really the sort of apocalyptic disaster for Europe some media expected it to be?
The answer to this question depends on one’s expectations. To the people who expected Trump to uphold the principles of the liberal international order and strongly condemn a Russia that has violated the order’s basic premises, this meeting must indeed have been a depressing sight. But such an expectation would be based on two quite erroneous premises: a) that Donald Trump cares about or even understands the liberal order; and b) that the liberal order can be restored simply by scolding and disciplining Russia.
In reality, the restoration of the liberal order via renewal and adaptation will take a long time; and it may be that things have to get worse before they can get better. We are in the middle of the journey here; far from the world we would like to see. But by the standards of our confusing times, the outcome of the Helsinki meeting was not entirely bad for Europe.
The one certain outcome seems to be the renewal of US-Russia dialogue on several levels. While Europeans may have their suspicions regarding the contents of any US-Russia talks, on balance the resumption of contacts is still probably more good than bad. Confrontation without contacts can become dangerous.
It is also not bad that the two sides indicated their willingness to talk about arms control. Progress here should not be taken for granted, as both the Trump administration and Russia have misgivings about the existing arrangements, and might seek to reshape them. Still, arms control arrangements collapsing with no replacements in sight would have confronted the Europeans with very unpleasant and divisive dilemmas regarding their own defence.
On balance, the resumption of contacts is still probably more good than bad
The emerging shape of the US-Russia vision for Syria – that focuses on securing Israel and containing Iran, while explicitly or implicitly also legitimising Assad’s continued rule – is certainly deficient from the European viewpoint, as Europeans would have liked to see true power-sharing arrangements and ultimately a transfer of power away from Assad. However, the battle over Syria’s future was lost not in Helsinki, but long ago; and it was lost by lack of good Western strategy.
A ‘grand bargain’ on Ukraine – that many in Europe feared when Trump said he might recognise annexation of Crimea – was probably never on the cards. “Trump says so just to put pressure on Europe on matters of trade and defence spending,” said a Moscow expert familiar with the preparatory talks. And he was right – at the summit, Trump stuck to non-recognition and, as Putin said, also emphasised the importance of continued transit of Russian gas via Ukraine – in addition to, not instead of, Nordstream II. Europe is itself split on the gas question, but both Nordstream II and transit via Ukraine are on several countries’ wish lists.
The proposal at the summit to create a forum for bringing together US and Russian ‘business captains’ suggests that the US might refrain from upgrading its sanctions on Russia: from now on, in business relations, what is not forbidden, is allowed. Seemingly paradoxically, this actually helps Europe’s principled stand vis-à-vis Russia. Uncontrolled escalation of vaguely defined but comprehensive US sanctions on Russia would make the European sanctions – which are tightly related to fulfilment of the Minsk agreement – redundant as a policy tool. This is because Russia would see that, whatever its relations with Europe, economic sanctions would remain in place. But a more moderate US stance means that the prospect of resolving the Donbas conflict will actually improve, though it undoubtedly remains difficult.
Finally, it is not a given that the renewed US-Russia contacts will leave Europe on the sidelines. Russians have seen how the good atmosphere after last year’s Hamburg meeting very quickly deteriorated into a bad confrontation over Syria. They know that Trump remains unpredictable, and so do his relations with the US establishment. And some of them think that better relations with Europe would actually help to navigate this complicated relationship.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.