No Matter What Comes Out Of Helsinki, Putin Has Already Won

Even if all he gets out of the Helsinki Summit is a handshake and a photograph, Vladimir Putin has already won.

Over at The New York Times, Andrew Higgins and Neil MacFarquhar argue that Vladimir Putin has already come out ahead simply by getting President Trump to meet with him tomorrow:

MOSCOW — When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sits down with President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, 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 Mr. 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 United States election in 2016 and other examples of what the United States 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 will arrive in Helsinki after presiding over the final game of the World Cup soccer tournament in Moscow on Sunday, and will meet an American 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, which prompted some Democrats to demand the cancellation of the Helsinki meeting, 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, in fact, 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 United States, 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 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 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 U.S. 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 meeting 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.

Trump has been effectively doing Putin’s bidding for months now, of course, so in essence he’s already given the Russian leader the victory that he’s been looking for ever since being kicked out of the G-8, now the G-7, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea i 2014. Either wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has helped to advance an agenda that leaders in Moscow have been seeking to advance for decades going to years of the Cold War. Specifically, of course, I am speaking of the dream that Soviet leaders had during the Cold War of driving a wedge between the United States and its European allies. From the start of the Cold War, the Soviets did everything they could to foment division between the United States and Western Europe through the use of methods such as propaganda, the surreptitious funding and support of left-wing political parties throughout Europe, and helping to foment protest movements against the United States inside Europe. On more than one occasion, of course, they were able to do this by exploiting mistakes made by the United States such as the Vietnam War and interventions in nations around the world that led to the installation of authoritarian rulers, both of which led to widespread protests in Europe just as they did in the United States. In the 1980s, we saw these efforts manifested in the form of protests that attempted to block the installation of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe to counter the threat presented by such weapons previously put in place by the Warsaw Pact. By and large, though, those efforts were unsuccessful. While the relationship between the U.S. and Europe was often strained, such as during the Vietnam War and the Reagan years, the alliance between the U.S, and Western Europe endured notwithstanding all the Soviet efforts to undermine it.

Virtually from the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union did everything it could to foment division between the United States and Western Europe. They did this via propaganda, surreptitiously supporting left-leaning political parties, and helping to foment protest movements in Europe at various times throughout the years between the beginning of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union. Often, they were able to do it by exploiting the mistakes that the United States made on the world stage, such as the Vietnam War, which led to as many widespread protests in Europe as it did in the United States. In the 1980s, we saw it manifest itself in the form of protests that attempted to block the installation of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe to counter a threat already presented by the introduction of such weapons by the Warsaw Pact. Throughout it all, the Soviets tried to do everything they could to undermine the NATO alliance and the ties between the United States and Europe.

As it turns out, of course, those efforts proved to be unsuccessful. Though they have been tested at times, the alliances that the United States developed with Western Europe, Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea, and, of course, our neighbor to the north in Canada proved resilient. Ultimately, those alliances prevailed over a Warsaw Pact that was built and maintained by a combination of dictatorship and fear that the Soviets would act as they did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and over the Soviet Union that was held together by essentially the same forces. While many wondered what would happen to this international order after the end of Cold War, it has, if anything, proven to be even more resilient over the years, and that has benefited the United States both economically in the form of international trade and in terms of our national security. As I’ve pointed out before, the number of times that our allies have supported us over the years is incalculable, with perhaps the two greatest examples of that coming during the Persian Gulf War and the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

This has changed with the rise of Donald Trump.

Instead of speaking out against Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, the evidence of which is now vividly apparent thanks to indictments that have been issued by the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller both in March and just this past Friday, as well as the acknowledgment of that interference by Trump’s own intelligence advisers, the President has done everything he can to undermine that investigation and to dismiss it as “Fake News.” During his visits to Europe last year, Trump left many of our closest allies wondering just how committed the President was to the alliance and to its collective defense principles notwithstanding later assurances regarding that commitment on his part. Additionally, over the past several months the President has in a number of other actions that have gone further than the Soviets ever could have dreamed in driving a wedge between the United States and its allies. In late May, for example, he imposed tariffs against America’s closest allies on the ridiculous ground on the ridiculous ground that they were a threat to American national security. He followed that up with a performance at the G-7 Summit in Canada during, which he basically blew up and during which he is reported to have made several derogatory comments about NATO itself. All of that has been topped off, of course, over the course of the past several days during which the President continued to trash the other members of NATO for allegedly not meeting their obligations to the organizations while making it clear he has no understanding of what the alliance is about or how it benefits the United States. This was followed up by a largely embarrassing visit to the United Kingdom during which he was derogatory toward his host Prime Minister Theresa May and made comments about internal British politics that are entirely inappropriate for an American President on a diplomatic visit.

All of this brings us to tomorrow’s meeting in Helsinki, the entire point of which seems to be entirely unclear. For several days now, the White House has tried to downplay expectations for the meeting even as the President continues to play it up and guarantee that the American public, and the rest of the world, will expect something to come out of this other than a press release as we saw with the summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, it seems clear that it’s unlikely that anything major will come out of tomorrow’s meeting. Speaking to CBS News in advance of the meeting, for example, Trump said that he wasn’t even sure if he’d bring up the recent indictments of more than twenty Russian officials by the Office of Special Counsel and also made clear that he’s unlikely to demand that Putin turn those defendants over to the United States for prosecution. In the same interview, the President indicated that he considered the European Union to be more of a foe to the United States than Russia is notwithstanding the evidence of Russian interference in the election. Finally, the President has made it clear that he believes that former President Obama and the Democrats are more to blame for the hacking that lies at the heart of the latest round of indictments than the Russians are. Given all of that, it’s clear that Trump will go into this meeting with no intention whatsoever of putting any pressure at all on the Russian President to either come clean on what happened in 2016, or what the Russians have in mind for the 2018 elections.

Finally, as the article quoted above notes, Trump has already handed Putin a win simply by granting this meeting without any pre-conditions. Just as he did when he met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un last month, the mere fact that the American President is meeting with the President of Russia four years after the nation became something of an international pariah due to its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine gives Putin an unparalleled diplomatic victory that costs him absolutely nothing. Add into this the fact that the President is meeting with Putin even as the evidence of the extent to which Russia interfered in the American election in an effort to influence the outcome of the election in Trump’s favor, and you have a man who should be isolated, and largely was during the final years of the Obama Administration, being let back into the international club without Russia having to give anything up in return. Even if Putin walks away from Helsinki tomorrow with nothing else other than a handshake and a photograph, he has already won and the United States and its allies have clearly lost. That’s only going to embolden Putin to continue acting in a provocative manner and continue with his so far successful efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe and to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions in both parts of the world.




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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    And in reading this, I again come to the question of how this man came to be our president, when so few seem to like him, or his policies. Despite their dislike, many voted for him.

    Here’s my best answer: He is able to get people more unhappy at other people than himself. He leverages their resentment and anger, and presents himself as a vehicle for retribution. He has decades of practice at this, and is highly skilled at it.

    This is terrible for us as a nation and as a people. The system that social media has evolved into is aligned with this strategy. It is ridiculously easy these days to make a website, create some posts that are as inflammatory as possible, while having only a vague relationship with truth, and see them go viral on social media. This is affecting most people on the internet.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    So…either knowingly or unknowingly, we have an American president that is the catspaw of the thuggish leader of Russia, a geopolitical enemy of our country…humph, make America great again…

  3. Mikey says:

    In an interview with CBS, Trump was asked who he considered America’s “foes.” At the top of Trump’s list: the European Union.

    I used to think Trump would just get rolled by Putin; now I believe Trump is Putin’s willing tool.

  4. CSK says:

    Side note: Trump has resumed whining that the press hasn’t given him enough credit for his very successful–triumphal, even–“summit” with Kim Jong Un.


    Jonathan Chait may well be right that Putin has about 30 years’ worth of accumulated dirt on Trump.

  5. Kathy says:

    I hope the Cheeto doesn’t walk into the summit carrying a note that says “DO NOT RECOGNIZE ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA.” Because if he does recognize it, that’s the end of the current international order.

    I’m not saying NATO will collapse on that, or they’d expel the US. Rather it would take the brakes off China in taking over disputed islands in the Pacific, and would embolden Putin to grab some more former Soviet-era territory; maybe even probe whether Don the Con would be willing to go to war to defend the Baltic nations, NATO members though they be.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    If on December 7th, 1941, Roosevelt had said, “You know, everyone attacks other people’s fleets. . . I think Hirohito is a great guy,” you’d have the Trump Russia situation.

    Trump is a traitor. The people still supporting him are as well.

  7. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Back in December 2015, Trump was vociferous in his defense of Putin killing journalists on the grounds that “we kill people, too.” So, you know, big deal. Trump’s been kissing Putin’s ass since October 2007, when he said that Putin was “doing a great job.”

  8. de stijl says:

    Trump can’t just walk around and visit a dead drop – he has Secret Security folks with him 24 / 7, so they went with the “hide in plain sight” strategy and just arranged for him to meet with his handler directly.

  9. Slugger says:

    I wish someone would explain Trump’s definition of enmity to me. I have a trade imbalance with the Isle of Islay. They send me whisky; I send them money. I have had a sense of respect and gratitude toward them. Should I consider them as foes?

  10. de stijl says:


    Just refuse to run your furnace with peat as the fuel source and it’s all square, dude.

  11. CSK says:

    Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson will be interviewing Trump immediately after this fiasco, in Helsinki. Chris Wallace has an exclusive interview with Putin.

  12. de stijl says:


    State-run media always get the choice interviews in any authoritarian country. What’s your point?

    (In this case, you could easily use “state-running media…” instead and be quite correct)

  13. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @One American:
    You sir, are a traitor to your nation.
    Thanks to the system and people like Robert Mueller…we might be OK.

  14. Liberal Capitalist says:


    In an interview with CBS, Trump was asked who he considered America’s “foes.” At the top of Trump’s list: the European Union.
    I used to think Trump would just get rolled by Putin; now I believe Trump is Putin’s willing tool.

    Trump is a zero-sum-gain thinker: I win, you loose. And the only way that the score is kept is money.

    In the “greatest foe” interview, Trump’s perspective is economic (and potentially racist): Of everyone out there, who can potentially beat me in a business deal?

    It can only be the Europeans. Only they have products, process, manufacturing, and a skilled white population.

    This is also why his drumbeat in Europe in various interviews has be so strongly anti-immigrant… He sees Europe as his greatest competitor, but he doesn’t want them to change and become like “them”. He wants to beat them as they are, as then his victory will be greater.

    He has no value of political allies in his thought process.

    I believe that Trump is meeting with Putin as (in his mind) Russia is a weaker economic player, and Trump can leverage that “weakness” to his benefit in the zero-sum-gain world.

    Sadly, Trump’s playing checkers while others are playing chess.

  15. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Short sit-down open to the press before the Putin/Dennison secret meeting.
    Dennison’s body language is very submissive.

  16. CSK says:

    1. Putin is one hour late to the meeting, leaving Donny twiddling his teeny thumbs.
    2. Donny exclaims, when Putin finally shows up, “It’s great to be with you!”
    3. Donny Tweets that ALL the problems with Russia are the result of the “foolishness and stupidity” of the United States.

    Man, this is going to be even more of a triumph than the summit with Kim. What do you want to bet he gives Alaska back to Russia?

  17. Kathy says:

    If you recall what happened in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, you’ll know sanctions were imposed on Iraq, and diplomatic pressure was brought to bear in an attempt to get him to leave. Eventually the US working with the UN opted for war.

    But suppose instead sanctions had been kept on for years, without even moving troops to Saudi Arabia. Saddam may have left Kuwait, but that would have taken years.

    Now suppose around 1994, just before the midterms, Clinton began to argue about lifting sanctions on Iraq, saying Saddam’s a great guy, Kuwait should belong to Iraq because everyone there speaks Arabic, and held a summit conference with him in Cairo.

    That’s what Trump’s been doing with Putin, with the added bonus that, unlike Saddam, Putin meddled in internal US affairs.

  18. wr says:

    @CSK: “Man, this is going to be even more of a triumph than the summit with Kim. What do you want to bet he gives Alaska back to Russia?

    Look at the bright side — Sarah Palin won’t have to strain her eyes to see Russia from her house anymore…

  19. Mister Bluster says:

    I think Putin just said he will cooperate with the Mueller investigation!

  20. Mister Bluster says:

    In my life I have met two American Citizens who were fluent in Russian.
    I wish both of them were sitting next to me now.

  21. CSK says:


    Yes, I was thinking that. What was it she said about Putin in her interview with Katie Couric? Ah, yes: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where–where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border.” Well, she can be Putin’s bitch now.

  22. CSK says:

    Well, who knows what went on in the private meeting, but John Brennan has called Trump’s performance in the press conference afterward “high treason,” Anderson Cooper called it “disgraceful,” and Neil Cavuto–yes, Fox’s Neil Cavuto–called it “disgusting.”

  23. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Today is the day Putin became POTUS.

  24. CSK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Yep. The United States of America is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Putin Enterprises.

  25. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Hannity and Tucker Carlson have an interview with Dennison right after the surrender ceremony.
    Can’t wait to see how much they kiss his orange ass.

  26. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Oh, Putin got a LOT more than a handshake and a photo out of this meeting!

  27. Slugger says:

    Dr. Mataconis, you called it.

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: If that meant that Sarah Palin would need a visa to come to the US, I’m okay with it. Fair trade.