Amy Knight is the author of How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, and Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder
Last Monday’s summit meeting in Helsinki between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, followed by their joint press conference, was a victory for the Russian President, at least in the short term. Whatever happened during that meeting, which took place with only translators, it gave Mr. Putin what he wanted most: to be acknowledged at home and abroad as a powerful leader with a key role to play on the global stage. After its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia was ostracized by the West – its membership in the G8 group of nations was suspended and it was hit by Western economic sanctions. U.S. President Trump, of course, cannot undo those measures on his own. But by insisting on the importance of a good relationship with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump raised Mr. Putin’s stature, and with it, that of Russia.
According to Brookings Institution scholar Anna Polyakova, like myself a guest lecturer here at Chautauqua, N.Y., for “Russia week,” Mr. Putin’s performance at the meeting gave a huge boost to his approval ratings: “Clearly for the domestic audience, Putin got exactly what he wanted. He was seen as being on equal footing with the United States, and not only that, as actually leading the United States at some points in explaining U.S. policy toward Russia to the audience, to journalists in the room. I think Putin used this moment to shine, and that’s exactly how he’s being portrayed in the Russian media.”
Another important gain for Mr. Putin from Monday’s summit, and from Mr. Trump’s preceding meetings with NATO leaders in Brussels, was damage to the military alliance. Mr. Putin has made no secret of his intense hostility toward NATO. As a KGB agent in East Germany when the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Mr. Putin witnessed firsthand the collapse of the Soviet empire, and did not like what he saw. Not only did East Germany reunite with West Germany to become part of NATO; the alliance later expanded to include countries of Eastern Europe that had been members of the Soviet bloc. As Mr. Putin has said repeatedly over the years, with the Warsaw Pact [of pro-Soviet nations] gone, NATO exists only to threaten Russia militarily and politically. NATO’s planned development of a missile-defence shield has further aggravated the Kremlin’s deep concerns about the dangers to its security posed by the alliance.
Mr. Trump’s vocal complaints about NATO and his vague threats that the U.S. might leave the alliance unless members increased their military spending left fellow allies reeling. And Mr. Trump’s refusal on Monday to condemn Mr. Putin for Russia’s election meddling, the poisonings in the U.K., or Russia’s continued support for the brutal regime of Bashir al-Asaad in Syria sent a bad message to NATO and European Union countries. According to a former adviser on Russia at the U.S. National Security Council: “Unfortunately, that is going to mean a widening rift in the transatlantic alliance. It will mean that those countries in Europe that are already questioning whether to sustain sanctions against Russia will be emboldened to pursue a more Trump-like line with regards to Putin’s Russia, and it could mean a real falling apart of the transatlantic community and real fracture in the transatlantic alliance.”
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
Despite all the hype, the two leaders did not reach any agreement on arms control, which might have included extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), due to expire in 2021. Nor does it appear that Mr. Trump made any grand promises to Mr. Putin at the summit – such as recognizing Russia’s takeover of Crimea, pulling back on the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, or withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Mr. Putin especially needs a political settlement in Syria that ensures Russia’s strategic partnership with the Syrian government.
To achieve these goals, Mr. Putin needs the participation of the United States. But, after deploying his intelligence services to help Mr. Trump get elected, Mr. Putin may not appreciate the constraints that Mr. Trump is under at home regarding his Russia policy, especially as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election heats up.
Just three days before the summit, 12 Russian military intelligence officers were indicted by Mr. Mueller’s team for conspiring to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. And on the day before the meeting, a Russian agent, Maria Butina, was arrested for conspiracy in attempting to influence high-level American politicians to follow Moscow’s objectives during the 2016 presidential campaign.
A majority of Americans, 68 per cent, consider Russia either unfriendly or an enemy of the US., according to an NBC poll. This represents a nine-percentage-point increase from a year ago, when 59 per cent of Americans said they viewed Russia in such terms, which means that attitudes toward Russia have become more hostile during Mr. Trump’s administration.
If the Mueller probe produces strong evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump forces, this anti-Russian sentiment among Americans will only grow. And the Democrats, who have voiced the strongest opposition to Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, could be handed victories in the November congressional elections that might even allow them to regain control of the Senate or the House of Representatives. This, in turn, would mean that Congress could block pro-Russian initiatives coming from Mr. Trump’s White House.
As for the views of Russian people, Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at New York’s New School and great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, observed here at Chautauqua that “the more Americans bash Putin, the more Russians rally around him.” But Mr. Putin’s ruling elite and the oligarchs who support the Kremlin cannot welcome the continued revelations of Russian interference in American elections. These scandals increase the prospects of further sanctions against Russian officials and businessmen, which in turn will have adverse effects on the Russian economy.
The bottom line for Mr. Putin is to remain firmly in power until his presidential term expires in 2024 and to designate a successor who will honour his legacy and preserve the autocratic system of government that he has created. In order to ensure this outcome, Mr. Putin must maintain his popular support at home and prevent it from eroding because of economic dissatisfaction. Russia’s faltering economy, based primarily on its gas and oil resources, continues to be the Kremlin’s Achilles heel. Its economy began to rebound last year after a period of decline caused by Western sanctions and low oil prices, but GDP expanded by only 1.5 per cent in 2017, with similar projections for the next few years. This means that Russian pocketbooks will not be filling up any time soon. Significantly, following the Kremlin’s recent announced increase in retirement ages for men and women, Mr. Putin’s ratings in the polls fell from over 80 per cent to 65 per cent.
As for Putin’s nemesis, NATO, it has indeed suffered a setback because of Mr. Trump’s destructive behaviour, and it will now be more difficult for the alliance to stand united against Russian aggression. But this setback may only be temporary. On the same day as the Helsinki summit, leaders of the European Union took their own initiative to bolster the global system of government that Mr. Trump appears to be intent on destroying. They met with China in Beijing to establish common ground on trade and investment and a number of other issues, including climate change.
Mr. Trump has promised that “big results will come” from the Helsinki summit. But his ability to achieve such results is constrained by the U.S. system of checks and balances, as well as by America’s global alliances, frail as they are right now. Whatever results Mr. Trump had in mind, Mr. Putin and his Kremlin allies should not assume that they will all be positive for Russia, especially in the long run. The good fortune that befell Russia with Mr. Trump’s election as President, which the Kremlin helped to achieve, may not last forever.