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News Analysis

Just sitting down with Trump, Putin comes out ahead

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and President Donald Trump posed ahead a meeting in Helsinki on Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and President Donald Trump posed ahead a meeting in Helsinki on Monday.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — When President Vladimir Putin of Russia sits down with President Trump in Helsinki on Monday for a meeting he has long wanted, he will already have accomplished virtually everything he could reasonably hope for.

All he really needs to make his meeting with Trump a success is 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 Treasury Department has described as Russia’s “malign activity” around the world.

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“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 Putin has been gaining a lot of momentum lately. He will arrive in Helsinki after presiding over the final game of the World Cup soccer tournament in Moscow on Sunday, and will 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 Friday in Washington against 12 Russian military intelligence officers, which prompted some Democrats to demand the cancellation of the Helsinki meeting, could help 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 Trump’s outreach to Russia.

Right before the indictments were announced, in fact, Trump referred to the Russia investigation as a “rigged witch hunt” that “really hurts our relationship with Russia.”

Anything that stokes divisions inside the United States, or between America and its allies, is viewed by Moscow as a victory.

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Deploying hackers, disinformation campaigns, and support for far-right populist forces in Europe, Putin has long sought to fracture the West and upend the established geopolitical order. But Trump, who routinely attacks European leaders and has started a trade war with some of the United States’ closest allies, is now effectively doing the job for him.

Trump’s persistent tirades on the expense of NATO and his fury at the trade practices of the European Union, which he recently described as “possibly as bad as China, just smaller,” have startled even Russian pundits who have for years watched as 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 summit offers Putin a chance to restore what he and 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 Russia’s national television channels, will be able to present his meeting with Trump as proof that his country has come in from the cold and that, as Trump suggested last month, Russia should be readmitted to the Group of 7 club of industrialized democracies.

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Trump cannot unilaterally invite Putin back into the club. Russia was ejected from it after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

But by meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki, Trump sends a message that, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said after meeting Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1984, “we can do business together.”

Putin is a firm believer that real leaders do not dither. They make deals, unencumbered by caviling aides and persnickety diplomats, as he and Trump will be when they meet in Helsinki. Only translators will be present.

Yet, officials have made clear that they do not expect a grand bargain to come out of Helsinki. No matter what Trump agrees to with Putin, he still has to get it past a US establishment that remains deeply suspicious of Russia.