HELSINKI — Responding to a question here about interference in the 2016 election, Russian President Vladimir Putin distilled his worldview: “You can’t believe anyone.”
For once, Putin had a Western leader standing next to him who rejects his critics in the same way.
Monday’s summit with President Trump gave Putin a new level of international prestige, especially for the many Russians exhilarated by what they see as their president’s success in rebuilding their country’s global influence. It allowed the Russian president to avoid the opprobrium of the world’s most powerful country over election interference and other issues that have riled the West.
But beyond Putin’s tactical gains, the Helsinki meeting highlighted the global ascendance of Putin’s ruthless approach to politics and to facts — the posture that any truth can be an illusion, that any journalist or public servant is likely pursuing an ulterior motive.
That worldview, driven for years by state-controlled television in Russia and by Russian officials led by Putin himself, has long helped the former KGB agent consolidate power at home and buck Western criticism of his regime. It has driven Russia’s international influence efforts, such as on the airwaves of the pro-Kremlin television network RT. Now that same approach is allowing Putin to make common cause with the president of the United States to spurn the determination of American intelligence agencies and deny a U.S. special counsel’s findings.
Asked about U.S. intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Putin smirked: “I was an intelligence officer myself, and I do know how dossiers are made up.” As for those interference accusations, Putin said, “This is utterly delusional.”
Minutes later, Trump would echo Putin in claiming, “I don’t see any reason” that Russia would be behind the hacking of Democratic emails. Just as Putin has long seen a sinister hand behind U.S. state actions, Trump declared of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, “That was a total witch hunt.”
Asked how the talks went, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov quipped, “Fabulous,” according to Russian news agencies. “Better than super.”
Well before Putin and Trump sat down at the Presidential Palace on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, Kremlin allies were celebrating the simple fact that the summit was taking place. Even its choreography allowed Putin to claim a victory, down to the car that whisked him through Helsinki’s shuttered streets. After many years of riding in a Mercedes, Putin on Monday climbed into a brand-new, Russian-made presidential limousine on its first foreign deployment.
Putin’s nonchalant body language during the summit prompted a Russian state TV host to note: “Putin looks much more relaxed. Trump looks nervous and concerned.”
To Putin and other Russians who have long rejected talk of democratic values and human rights as a facade for furthering U.S. power, Trump’s lack of interest in such talk has appeared refreshing — and advantageous. Putin allies have touted Trump’s “pragmatism” compared to President Barack Obama, who often spoke of the need for countries such as Ukraine to evolve as democratic societies.
“Putin does not need to say anything,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “Trump just channels his and the Russian Foreign Ministry and RT narrative that it was all Obama’s fault.”
Putin can use the boost. Despite the triumph of the just-ended soccer World Cup in Russia, Putin faces head winds at home because of his government’s plan to raise the retirement age. The president’s domestic approval rating has slid to 49 percent this month from close to 70 percent earlier this year, according to the FOM polling institute, showing that the wave of patriotism that boosted Putin in the wake of the Crimea annexation in 2014 may not be enough to secure his popularity.
After Monday’s news conference, Putin supporters in Russia were quick to lavish praise on Trump. Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the upper house of parliament, said the remarks showed that “both leaders understand the importance of improving the bilateral relationship.” Prominent pro-Kremlin commentator Igor Korotchenko said in an interview that Trump’s rejection of his intelligence agencies’ conclusions represented a recognition that the interference allegations are “meant to delegitimize Trump.”
“Why would Trump play into his opponents’ hands?” Korotchenko said.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, however, the project of improving U.S.-Russian relations is only beginning. While Trump’s rhetoric on Russia represents a striking departure from his predecessors, American policy has gotten tougher. Pushed by Congress, the Trump administration imposed damaging new economic sanctions on Russia and initiated weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
Moscow is hoping for Washington to take concrete steps toward rapprochement. Putin has called on the United States to move forward on nuclear arms-control negotiations, but Trump on Monday signaled little progress on the subject. Economic sanctions are continuing to pinch Russia’s stagnant economy. In Ukraine, U.S. policy remains opposed to Russia’s intervention in the country’s east and the annexation of Crimea.
“Words are words, but we need actions,” Korotchenko said. “The question is: How free is he in his policies?”
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.