President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, were at pains to stress the constructive nature of their closely-watched summit, but both became markedly defensive when talking about Russian interference in the US presidential election in 2016.
Mr. Trump blustered on about how wonderful his campaign was and how that was the reason he won the election. Instead, he wanted to know where the server was that was hacked, and where all of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails were.
Mr. Putin flatly denied the involvement of the “Russian state.” He said the United States could use existing treaties to pursue the 12 “alleged” intelligence officers indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The Russian president even offered to have members of Mr. Mueller’s team present during any interrogation of the suspects. But, Mr. Putin added, he would then expect reciprocity in allowing Russian officials to pursue their case against William Browder, a British investor he accuses of siphoning out of Russia more than a billion dollars from illegal activity.
Relieving ‘migratory pressure’ on Europe
In their press conference, the two leaders emphasized their joint interest in security issues, especially nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. They pledged continued cooperation in Syria, with particular attention to safeguarding Israel and providing humanitarian relief for refugees.
This aid, Mr. Putin said, could ease the “migratory pressure” on Europe, marking one of the very few references to Europe made by the two men. They also responded to a question about Mr. Trump’s recent criticism of Nord Stream 2, the undersea pipeline project to deliver Russian gas to Western Europe.
Despite his implication that Russian gas was a security risk for Germany and other recipients, Mr. Trump couched his response in terms of “competition” and Mr. Putin as a “competitor” of the US. Mr. Putin said neither country had any interest in energy prices either plummeting to make production unprofitable or in skyrocketing to crimp the world economy.
Russia back on world stage
Even before the start of the summit, Mr. Putin had achieved many of his goals. With the two men meeting as equals, Moscow was back on the world stage, shaping the agenda, a power player meeting with a friend and peer.
Ahead of the conference, meanwhile, Mr. Trump was criticized for meeting Mr. Putin amid an inquiry into manipulation of the US presidential in 2016, after the indictment of 12 Russian diplomats for hacking.
The protocol for the meeting included this foreign interference, as well as reducing nuclear stockpiles, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Moscow’s continued support for Syria’s Assad. There were also hopes that Mr. Trump would raise the question of human rights abuses, continuing a tradition of US presidents visiting Russia. But this issue did not come up in the press conference.
With Mr. Trump’s freewheeling approach to NATO and Theresa May of the UK, many feared the conversation between the two leaders would veer off course. Concern was compounded by the fact that the two met without note-takers or translators in a meeting that ran for more than the scheduled 90 minutes.
In the event, the focus of the press conference stuck pretty closely to the script, though on questions like Crimea, they agreed to disagree. There was no mention of China or of the controversial US trade policy.
Disruptive week in Europe
At last week’s turbulent NATO summit, Mr. Trump diverted talk and meetings to the budget, his chief concern, forcing last-minute rescheduling. And in Britain, Mr. Trump caused concern and dismay by seeming to undermine Ms. May in an interview with The Sun newspaper by supporting former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, her chief detractor. He also implied she had failed to take his “advice” about the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Ahead of Helsinki, German leaders urged caution, and many were fearful, though Berlin officially welcomed the summit, saying it is important to keep talking. But the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said, “We can no longer rely on the White House unconditionally,” after Mr. Trump described the EU as a “foe.”
He and many other officials worldwide were concerned at the warm tone taken by Mr. Trump ahead of the summit, speaking of Mr. Putin as a friend, who he would like to get along with. Mr. Trump only conceded that the Russian president might be a rival, in a business sense. Likewise the tweets by the US president ahead of the event were congratulatory, referring to Russia’s hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament which ended on Sunday, and critical of US lawmakers’ role in dividing the two nations.
Ahead of the Helsinki summit, Mr. Maas had advice for Mr. Trump, too: Don’t make any unilateral deals that could damage European interests.
But both leaders seem to oppose those interests. Mr. Putin is threatened by the EU, given its recent extension of sanctions on parts of the Russian economy through to January 2019, alongside sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis.
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.