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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Vladimir Putin came to Helsinki with much stronger position than Donald Trump did. The Russian leader did not have to worry about a bothersome domestic opposition, a skeptical legislature or a Special Counsel investigating an alleged US interference in the Russian elections. On top of that, Vladimir Putin has an unquestionable superiority over Donald Trump in terms of summitry experience. If his intention was, as many Western observers argue, to outmaneuver his US counterpart, his ability to do that was more than evident long before the meeting.

However, why should Putin had set such a goal for himself in Helsinki? Whatever can be said about his ruthlessness, cynicism, hypocrisy and so on, it seems hard to argue that Vladimir Putin is stupid, ill-informed, impulsive or spectacularly short-sighted. The Russian President should know pretty well that Donald Trump is his best friend in US, if not in the West at large. Putin should also know that Trump desperately needed a political victory in Helsinki – at least something similar to what the US leader achieved earlier in Singapore at the meeting with Kim Chen Un from North Korea. It was critically important for Trump to prove to his critics not only in US, but also in the world that he could deal with Putin better than Barak Obama or any of his other predecessors. So real question about Helsinki is not how Putin outperformed Trump, but whether the former was generous enough with the latter. And if not, then why Putin was not ready to grant Trump a badly needed victory — at least a symbolic one?

Vladimir Putin came to Helsinki with much stronger position than Donald Trump did. The Russian leader did not have to worry about a bothersome domestic opposition, a skeptical legislature or a Special Counsel investigating an alleged US interference in the Russian elections. On top of that, Vladimir Putin has an unquestionable superiority over Donald Trump in terms of summitry experience. If his intention was, as many Western observers argue, to outmaneuver his US counterpart, his ability to do that was more than evident long before the meeting.

However, why should Putin had set such a goal for himself in Helsinki? Whatever can be said about his ruthlessness, cynicism, hypocrisy and so on, it seems hard to argue that Vladimir Putin is stupid, ill-informed, impulsive or spectacularly short-sighted. The Russian President should know pretty well that Donald Trump is his best friend in US, if not in the West at large. Putin should also know that Trump desperately needed a political victory in Helsinki – at least something similar to what the US leader achieved earlier in Singapore at the meeting with Kim Chen Un from North Korea. It was critically important for Trump to prove to his critics not only in US, but also in the world that he could deal with Putin better than Barak Obama or any of his other predecessors. So real question about Helsinki is not how Putin outperformed Trump, but whether the former was generous enough with the latter. And if not, then why Putin was not ready to grant Trump a badly needed victory — at least a symbolic one?

I have at least three answers to these questions.

First, Putin could have thought that some of his suggestions already constituted an opportunity for Trump to get back to Washington victorious. For instance, Putin emphasized his commitment to security of Israel and apparently indicated his readiness to convince Iranians to move away from the Golan Heights. He also suggested that U.S. investigators could come to Russia to participate in the questioning of a dozen Russian intelligence officers, who had been indicted in the United States on charges of election interference (one can only guess what resistance coming from the Russian intelligence community Putin had to overcome). Furthermore, Putin stated that under certain conditions, Russia could continue to use Ukraine for the gas transit — something that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had undoubtedly raised with Donald Trump over their recent meeting in Brussels. Maybe, Vladimir Putin thought this was good enough to start with. Unfortunately, he turned out to be wrong — even if this was good enough for Donald Trump, it was clearly insufficient for Trump’s critics and political opponents.

Andrey Kortunov:
Trump, Putin and China

Second, one can imagine that Putin was not ready to offer Trump much more simply because Trump remains a highly risky political investment for Putin. Many in Moscow today do not believe that Donald Trump will ever establish himself as a strong national leader capable of consolidating political power, skillfully managing the opposition and maintaining a coherent US foreign policy. In this case, it makes little sense in offering concessions to Trump or even in demonstrating more flexibility on important matters. If Putin does not believe in the political future of Trump, the value of the Helsinki meeting in Putin’s eyes should have been quite limited. A wait-and-see approach might make sense for the Kremlin though, of course, some of the burning problems between Russia and US can hardly wait for the political dust to settle down in Washington.

Third, there might has been something discussed between Trump and Putin in Helsinki that has never been turned public. We simply do not know what kind of deals on Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, strategic arms control, etc. the two leaders could have explored in private. We do not know what kind of consultations between the Kremlin and the White House take place at this moment. In this case, we should expect the unexpected in the very nearest future. Diplomats and experts from both sides might be forging behind closed doors an epic geopolitical victory for Donald Trump as ancient dwarves in their hidden workshops were tirelessly forging Mjölnir — the powerful hammer of Thor that would once change the fate of Asgard.

First published in the American Herald Tribune.


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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
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     27 (26%)
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     22 (21%)
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