Andrew Higgins and Neil MacFarquhar
As Russian President Vladimir Putin sits down with President Donald Trump in Helsinki on Monday for a meeting he has long wanted, he has already accomplished virtually everything he could reasonably hope for.
All he needed to make his meeting with Mr Trump a success was for it to take place without any major friction – providing a symbolic end to Western efforts to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in 2014, its meddling in the US election in 2016 and other examples of what the US Treasury Department has described as Russia’s “malign activity” around the world.
“If Trump says, ‘Let bygones be bygones because we have a world to run,’ that is essentially what Moscow needs from this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow.
As with any negotiation, timing is everything, and Mr Putin has been gaining a lot of momentum lately. He arrived in Helsinki after presiding over the final game of the World Cup soccer tournament in Moscow on Sunday, and was to meet a US president who has spent the last week berating his NATO allies and undercutting his host in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May.
Even the indictment announced on Friday in Washington against 12 Russian military intelligence officers could help Mr Putin by playing into a conspiracy theory long embraced by both the Kremlin and the White House, that the “deep state” is determined to sabotage Mr Trump’s outreach to Russia. Right before the indictments were announced Mr Trump referred to the Russia investigation as a “rigged witch hunt” that “really hurts our relationship with Russia”.
Anything that stokes divisions inside the US, or between America and its allies, is viewed by Moscow as a victory. Deploying hackers, disinformation campaigns and support for far-right populist forces in Europe, Mr Putin has long sought to fracture the West and upend the established geopolitical order. But Mr Trump, who routinely attacks European leaders and has started a trade war with some of America’s closest allies, is now effectively doing the job for him.
Mr Trump’s persistent tirades on the expense of NATO and his fury at the trade practices of the EU, which he recently described as “possibly as bad as China, just smaller”, have startled even Russian pundits who have for years watched as Mr Putin, like Soviet-era leaders before him, tried in vain to undermine the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“We are witnessing something surprising, something that even the Soviet Union was not able to accomplish: Divide the US and Western Europe. It didn’t work then, but it seems to be working with Mr Trump now,” Tatyana Parkhalina, president of the Russian Association for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, said on a recent talk show on state-run television.
The Helsinki summit offers Mr Putin a chance to restore what he and Mr Trump see as the natural order of world affairs, one in which traditional diplomatic alliances are not a given, smaller countries don’t really matter and big powers act in their own self interest, above all else. That order includes Russia playing a central role, instead of being treated like a pariah or a second-rate has-been.
Whatever the outcome of their talks, the Russian President, thanks to the Kremlin’s firm grip on all of Russia’s national television channels, will be able to present his meeting with Mr Trump as proof that his country has come in from the cold and that, as Mr Trump suggested last month, Russia should be readmitted to the Group of 7 club of industrialised democracies.
The possibility that Mr Putin, after months of frustration at Mr Trump’s inability to deliver on his repeated pledges to “get along with Russia”, will have something to celebrate in Helsinki has led to an abrupt dialling down of the often venomous anti-American diatribes by Russia’s state-controlled news outlets.
Alexei A. Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station that has been allowed to maintain an independent editorial line, said that in eagerness to avoid offending Mr Trump, the state news media, under orders from the Kremlin, had muted its frequent portrayal of the US President as a hapless captive of the “deep state”, the supposed cabal of hidden powerbrokers that the Kremlin has long blamed for all its problems with the US.
Presenting Trump as a helpless prisoner of more powerful forces runs counter to the US leader’s macho self-image, Mr Venediktov said, so it had to be toned down to allow Mr Trump to “display his manly qualities in Helsinki”.