Op-Ed: Making Sense of the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has come and gone. In its wake, it left a new round of controversy that brought sharp criticisms of Trump's performance in Helsinki and forced the White House to scramble to walk back and correct some of his comments. What actually happened at Helsinki, what does it mean and what are its consequences, if any?

The Helsinki Summit

For the most part, the Helsinki summit was a pretty bland affair, even by the usual bland standards of such meetings. The summit featured the first one-on-one encounter between Putin and Trump, outside of an international gathering of the major heads of state. It was heralded by the White House as a major event, one that would put U.S. and Russian relations on a new track.

Coming on the heels of the summit in Singapore between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un just a few weeks before, it was meant to showcase Trump's deal-making prowess and underscore his remaking of U.S. foreign policy. In actuality, it did neither.

There was nothing substantive that came out of the summit in Helsinki except for vague declarations of the advantages of American and Russian cooperation, the need to put past history of strained relations between Moscow and Washington behind them, and promises that both countries would work toward finding common areas of cooperation.

In his prepared comments following the meeting with Trump, Putin noted, "It's quite clear to everyone that the bilateral relationships are going through a complicated stage, and yet those impediments -- the current tension, the tense atmosphere -- essentially have no solid reason behind it. "The Cold War is a thing of past. The era of acute ideological confrontation of the two countries is a thing of the remote past, is a vestige of the past."

Putin went on to highlight areas where U.S.-Russian cooperation is possible and highly desirable for both countries. The Kremlin, Putin noted, had submitted to "our American colleagues a note with a number of specific suggestions."

These areas included working "together further to interact on the disarmament agenda, military, and technical cooperation. This includes the extension of the Strategic Offensive Arms Limitation Treaty. It's a dangerous situation with the global American anti-missile defense system; it's the implementation issues with the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty; and, of course, the agenda of non-placement of weapons in space."

It had been widely speculated that the summit might bring an announcement that both countries had agreed to extend for an additional period of time the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START), which is set to expire in 2021. No announcement was made, however, beyond stating that both presidents had agreed to discuss the matter further and that it would be pursued by their respective national security staffs.

Additionally, Putin noted the "plethora of regional crises," adding, "It's not always that our postures dovetail exactly. And yet, the overlapping and mutual interests abound. We have to look for points of contact and interact closer in a variety of international fora."

Specific crises cited included the ongoing civil war in Syria, as well as the issues of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, and the status of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well as the situation in Ukraine.

Putin also used his prepared remarks to note, "President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia in the American elections, and I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including the election process."

Beyond the opportunity to underscore his status as a world leader by having a one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States, Putin had little to show for the summit in Helsinki.

There was no word about repealing the U.S.-led imposition of economic sanctions on Russia that resulted from the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Nor was there any indication that Moscow and Washington are any closer to agreeing on how to settle the frozen conflict in Ukraine.

For his part, Trump was equally bland. In typical Trump hyperbole, he confirmed, "Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that. "

Trump brought up the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections at the beginning of his prepared comments, noting, "During today's meeting, I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. We spent a great deal of time talking about it, and President Putin may very well want to address it, and very strongly -- because he feels very strongly about it, and he has an interesting idea."

The interesting idea, it was later disclosed, was the offer to consider making the 12 Russian GRU agents indicted by the Justice Department available for interviews to the Mueller investigation, an offer that Putin quickly made clear would require the U.S. to be equally cooperative when Russian authorities had similar requests.

In fact, Putin added, Russian investigators also had a list of people they wanted to speak with regarding alleged tax evasion and other criminal activities. The list includes William Browder, whose efforts had been pivotal in passing the Magnitsky Act, as well as a number of U.S. government officials, including Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Trump also cited areas where Moscow and Washington could cooperate, including finding a solution to the Syrian civil war and the ongoing refugee crisis it had spawned, dealing with jihadist terrorism, and limiting Iran's destabilizing foreign policy.

According to Trump, "we also agreed that representatives from our national security councils will meet to follow up on all of the issues we addressed today and to continue the progress we have started right here in Helsinki."

Beyond the symbolism of the meeting between the two presidents -- symbolism that both men found useful as it underscored their status as world leaders -- nothing of substance was announced or has yet come from the meeting. Indeed, had it ended there, it would have been a non-event.

Following each president's prepared remarks, four journalists, two each from Russia and the United States, were permitted to ask two questions to each of the two leaders. The final question, to Trump from Jonathan Lemire, of The Associated Press, is what precipitated the controversy spawned by the summit.

Addressing himself to Trump, Lemire asked: "President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What -- who -- my first question for you, sir, is, who do you believe?"

"My second question is, would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin -- would you denounce what happened in 2016? And would you warn him to never do it again?"

Trump's answer was a long and rambling one in which he cited the missing emails from Hillary Clinton's private server as well as the fact that the FBI had not been allowed to examine the server at the Democratic National Committee that had been breached by Russian hackers, before he finally said: "[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia."

"I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be," he added.

"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," he continued. "And what he did is an incredible offer; he offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer."

Trump's answer, in which he appeared to accept Putin's denial that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections despite his own intelligence agencies' conclusion to the contrary, is inexplicable, especially given that in his prepared comments just a few minutes earlier Trump gave the impression that he had taken Putin to task for interfering with the American electoral process.

Subsequently, the White House tried to "clarify" Trump's comments, insisting he had misspoken and that instead of saying, "I don't see any reason why it would be," he had meant to say, "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be."

That clarification is hard to believe, given the statements that both preceded and followed the comment in question.

The resulting firestorm saw critics of the Trump administration lambaste the president, claiming it was "the worst performance of a U.S. president at an international summit."

Trump's comments were described as "treasonous" by television news commentators and he was accused of being completely outmaneuvered by Putin and being a stooge of the Kremlin.

One commentator went so far as to claim that his comments in Helsinki offered definitive proof that the Russians "had something on Trump."

Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election

U.S. intelligence agencies have released considerable material documenting Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. This documentation has also been corroborated by several sets of indictments against Russian nationals and companies, which have been filed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Russian interference in U.S. elections is nothing new. What was unprecedented in the 2016 presidential election was the scope and the extent to which Russian nationals were directly involved.

In February, Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals, along with St. Petersburg's Internet Research Agency (IRA) and two other Russian companies, of conducting "information warfare" against the U.S. to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. Such actions were a violation of U.S. electoral laws.

According to the indictment, the multi-year scheme cost millions of dollars and involved dozens of people, both in Russia, as well as Russian nationals who directly came to the U.S. to help organize controversial political rallies on U.S. soil.

In addition, more than 80 Russians at the IRA created thousands of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, which were used to spread misleading information and advertising, both about the two candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as foment dissent over socially divisive issues such as race relations, abortion, gun rights and other contentious issues.

According to the Mueller indictment, the intent of the campaign was "to spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general." Although on balance, the advertising appeared to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, most of the ads were not geared toward the two candidates, but instead focused on promoting social unrest and confrontation.

In addition, Mueller's most recent indictment identified a further 12 Russians who are members of the GRU, the military intelligence agency, and charged them with hacking into the accounts of several different organizations, including the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as the email accounts of various members of the Clinton campaign staff.

The information obtained from these hacks was subsequently released via websites called DC Leaks, WikiLeaks and a lone hacker who identified himself as Guccifer 2.0. Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks have both been tied to the GRU. WikiLeaks has repeatedly denied obtaining the emails it released from Russian sources, claiming that they were passed on by third parties it has declined to identify.

In addition, it also appears that Russian intelligence agencies attempted to breach U.S. state and local electoral organizations and, possibly, vote tallying machines. The FBI claims that 21 different states were targeted in the Russian effort, including voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona. According to Coats, the Trump-appointed Director of National Intelligence, despite the Kremlin's denials, Russian efforts to hack into the U.S.' electoral infrastructure are continuing.

The White House has been ambivalent and inconsistent in how it has responded to its own intelligence agencies' assessments of Russian interference. At times, the Trump administration has accepted those findings, while at other times it has downplayed them, even going as far as claiming that it is prepared to accept Russian assurances that Moscow was not involved in meddling in the 2016 elections.

The confusion, in part, is driven by how the White House has handled the issue of whether the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia in trying to influence the election outcome and, in particular, the nature and source of the intelligence that triggered the collusion investigation in the first place.

Russian interference in the 2016 election is an entirely different issue from whether it colluded with the Trump campaign organization in its efforts. The latter, however, presupposes the former. At times, by trying to cast doubt on whether Russian interference even took place, the White House appears to be trying to put more distance between itself and the charge that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia by casting doubts that there was any Russian involvement at all, much less collusion.

There is another perspective, however, which is equally plausible, and that is entirely consistent with how the Kremlin has responded to the ongoing investigation and how Putin dealt with the issue of Russian interference at the Helsinki summit.

Russia did interfere in the U.S. 2016 election. That much is clear. That intervention, however, was not motivated by a desire to see Trump elected, although he was the Kremlin's preferred candidate over Clinton, but rather an attempt to promote social discord and unrest in the U.S. and ensure that whomever won the election would be seen as illegitimate by their opponents and end up with a tainted presidency.

Most of the advertising and activity carried out by Russian agents was designed to foment social unrest and exacerbate divisions and public opinion over contentious issues. The Kremlin may also have indirectly or purposely supplied the information that triggered the launching of the FBI investigation to begin with.

Moreover, there is a long list of Russian nationals -- the most recent, alleged Russian agent Maria Butina -- who seem to have gone out of their way to make contact and interact with the American political establishment. This extent of direct Russian activity is unprecedented in American elections.

In an open society like that of the U.S., especially one that is characterized by a sprawling political infrastructure of parties, elected officials, media, lobbyists and political operatives, making such contacts and interacting with them is not particularly difficult, especially when one comes offering the two most coveted assets of the political class: money and information.

That such contacts were being made by individuals who were clearly Russian -- with links back to the Russian government in general, and the Kremlin in particular, that were not particularly difficult to identify or document -- suggests they were specifically intended to create doubts about the legitimacy of the winner when the extent of those contacts was eventually and inevitably disclosed. Contact with any Russian nationals has now become toxic for the American political establishment -- the third rail of U.S. politics.

Moreover, regardless of what the Kremlin's intention may have been, Russia is now a central part of the ongoing investigation. By indicting Russian nationals and intelligence operatives, the Mueller investigation may have succeeded in demonstrating that it has uncovered what it believes are legitimate violations of electoral laws, but it also ensures an ongoing Russian involvement in the controversy.

From that standpoint, Putin's offer to consider making the 12 GRU intelligence officers available to the Mueller interview guarantees that the investigation will not get wrapped up anytime soon. Making those officers available to the U.S. Justice Department is not an issue that will be quickly resolved. It will undoubtedly require lengthy negotiations on the terms and conditions under which these officials will be made available.

Moreover, it will be made additionally complicated by the fact that the Kremlin is simultaneously advancing its own list of American government officials that its own prosecutors want to interview. It's unlikely that the Mueller investigation will be wrapped up when the testimony of 12 potential witnesses is in the balance. By making his offer, Putin has ensured that the Mueller investigation will continue for the foreseeable feature.

If the Kremlin's intent was to sow social discord and unrest, then it has succeeded brilliantly in its efforts. Indeed, those efforts have been further enhanced by the national media's fixation with the Mueller investigation and the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Moreover, given the state of current national discord, that campaign is continuing to succeed. At this point, the Kremlin no longer needs to take out surreptitious Facebook ads. It has already become firmly embedded in the controversy, and its ongoing participation in the current investigations will firmly keep it there.

After Helsinki

So far, the Helsinki summit has accomplished little of note. Were it not for President Trump's ill-advised comment regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, its immediate consequences would have been minimal. Trump's comments were inappropriate and just plain wrong. Whether they constitute an act of treason, however, is a stretch.

The summit may come to represent the beginning of an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations or it may not. While there are certainly areas where Russia and the U.S. governments can work closer together, the key issues that have divided Moscow and Washington -- Russia's seizure of Crimea and its efforts to destabilize Ukraine; the U.S.' and European Union's economic sanctions against Russia; and the Kremlin's efforts to exercise more control over the countries on its periphery, the so-called near abroad -- are a long way from being resolved.

Moreover, the fact that some of those former Soviet states are now members of NATO, which the U.S. and its allies are committed to defend, make a long-term rapprochement unlikely unless the Kremlin rethinks the objectives of its current foreign policy and its conception of what constitutes Russian security.

For the Kremlin, fomenting social discord in the U.S. is a way of weakening U.S. power and resolve. Ultimately, it is just another chip that it can barter with the White House to achieve its other foreign policy objectives.

In retrospect, that policy has been quite brilliant, even if it has yet to yield any tangible reward.

The tragedy is the extent to which the United States has allowed itself to be so easily manipulated by Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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