HELSINKI — For the Kremlin, the summit was only the beginning.
Russian commentators and politicians declared the meeting here between Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin a triumph, concluding that Trump was finally serious about fulfilling his campaign promise to improve relations with Moscow.
“It is here in Helsinki where the first step toward a better future was made,” government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta proclaimed.
Now, Russian officials are waiting to see whether Trump’s words will translate into action or fall flat in the face of a U.S. establishment that they view as determined to reverse the thaw.
Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said in an interview Tuesday that he expected senior U.S. and Russian officials to meet repeatedly in the next six months and hammer out a “road map” toward resolving contentious issues and deepening cooperation.
Intelligence agencies, for instance, need to start working together more closely to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Klimov said. Nuclear arms control and solutions to the Syria and Ukraine crises need to be discussed, he added.
After the summit, Putin told Fox News that he was ready to extend the New START treaty governing Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, presenting perhaps the most concrete matter on which the Kremlin is looking for U.S. engagement. The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement Tuesday declaring that it was ready to “activate contacts” with its U.S. counterparts to discuss arms control, “cooperation in Syria” and other security matters.
“We now have the chance to improve our relationship, a chance we haven’t had for a long time,” Klimov said. “Now the main thing is not to lose this opportunity.”
Many analysts in Russia and in the West doubt Putin’s commitment to negotiating in good faith, particularly on Ukraine and Syria, where he has used military force to assert and expand Russian influence. To Putin’s allies, Trump’s apparent readiness to ignore his advisers’ skepticism about negotiating with Russia on those issues was the most important outcome of the summit.
“We have been waiting for this meeting since the time of Trump’s election, because he promised to improve relations with Russia,” Leonid Kalashnikov, chairman of the Eurasian integration committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said on a state TV talk show after Monday’s summit. “I think that Russia has won now — well, we don’t know the results yet, but the fact that this meeting took place is a victory for us.”
The summit represented a personal triumph for Putin, who faces the prospect that the burst of patriotism that boosted him at home after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine is wearing off. His approval rating has dropped about 20 percentage points, to around 50 percent, in recent months amid economic stagnation and a government effort to raise the retirement age. The summit sharpened Putin’s image as a leader rebuilding Russian influence on the world stage, one who solves global problems face to face with the leader of the world’s most powerful country.
The Helsinki gathering took place in the wake of “all the talk of Russia as a regional country with a torn-apart economy, a country in international isolation,” lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov said on the same TV program. Now, he said, the world is “coming to understand that the situation on the planet depends on dialogue between two great world powers.”
The Kremlin is likely to seek to ramp up the pressure on Trump to make good on his promise to improve U.S.-Russia relations despite the head winds in Washington. Putin told a Russian television interviewer Monday that he expects to meet with Trump again soon, potentially at the East Asia Summit in Singapore or the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina in November and December, according to the Interfax news agency.
Trump’s rejection on Monday of his intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election dovetailed with Russian state media’s longtime depictions of a sinister U.S. establishment. The furious criticism of Trump’s performance at the news conference with Putin from across the U.S. political spectrum reinforced the story line that Trump is fighting a “deep state” in his effort to improve relations with Russia. (On Tuesday, Trump walked back his comments and said he accepts his intelligence agencies’ findings.)
“For the general public, Trump’s comments will confirm the narrative that has been cultivated by the Russian state media,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the independent Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. That narrative, according to Gabuev: “Donald Trump may be a strange personality, but he is a good guy who is smart enough to understand how important it is for the U.S. to be friends with Russia.”
On another leading state TV talk show late Monday, host Vladimir Solovyov read aloud the condemnations of Trump’s Helsinki comments by leading U.S. politicians. Then he cut to Trump questioning the whereabouts of a Democratic computer server in response to a question on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“When Trump was talking about those servers, he was defending his life!” talk-show guest Karen Shakhnazarov, a prominent filmmaker, then shouted. “Not his post, but his life! He knows very well what the American system is and how it treats people who go against the establishment.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.