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US Experts Largely Negative on Outcome of Trump-Putin Summit, Russians Give Mixed Assessment

July 20, 2018
RM Staff

The American and Russian press have been full this week of reactions to the July 16 summit between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. We have collected comments here from some of both countries’ most notable analysts of the bilateral relationship. On the U.S. side there has primarily been disappointment. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “It was a meeting that had to take place,” but it was “certainly a missed opportunity,” while Harvard’s Graham Allison saw a bit of a silver lining: “Communicating with your adversaries, even your enemies, even your deadliest enemies, is a good idea,” he said, “because what you don’t want to do is have two parties … stumbling into a war they don’t want.” Many Russian experts likewise welcomed the resumption of high-level dialogue and noted the concrete proposals on the Middle East. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin noted, however, that “what happened in this Helsinki summit—and I think it's very important—is that Putin has not only cast his lot very publicly with Donald Trump but he has involved himself from now on in domestic political strife in the United States.” Others pointed out that this could backfire for Moscow. Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council, for example, said that the Russian establishment’s general feeling that the summit was a success and Trump has prevailed over his domestic opponents may be due to misperceptions about the U.S. political system: “Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. … He tends to project that on other leaders he meets… It is difficult for him to see that the U.S. system doesn’t work this way.”

U.S. Experts

Russian Experts

Graham Allison

Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School; Former Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

“Communicating with your adversaries, even your enemies, even your deadliest enemies, is a good idea because what you don’t want to do is have two parties that are competitors or adversaries or even enemies stumbling into a war they don’t want. … We should understand both Americans and Russians. Any day either president decides to kill everybody in the other country, he can do it. That’s a hard, ugly fact. … What they shouldn’t do is stumble into a war… [A] lot of Americans misunderstand … the ways in which failures to communicate … could lead, as they did in 1914, to a bunch of misunderstandings at the end of which you could be in a catastrophic war, which would be crazy for Russia, would be crazy for the U.S.” (RT, 07.19.18)

George Beebe

Director for Intelligence and National Security, Center for the National Interest

“Expectations were low heading into the Helsinki summit, but the United States and Russia still managed to sail their listing bilateral ship directly into the rocks of the Russian cyber-meddling controversy. … Trump’s ambivalence at the summit press conference poured gasoline on America’s simmering domestic political fire and narrowed his already slim room for maneuver with Moscow to almost nothing.” (The National Interest, 07.19.18)

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council

“The criticism directed at President Trump is on target. Trump has given a lamentable demonstration of his own ignorance, willfulness, and failure to understand with whom he is dealing. It is, sad to say, quite understandable that critics in both parties would label such behavior treasonous, imbecilic, and shameful. If the president is not an agent of influence, or a useful idiot to use the Russian terms that would be appropriate here, his performance in Helsinki represented an excellent facsimile of one of these two categories. And therefore it is all too likely that Putin’s probes against the U.S. and its allies will intensify rather than subside and that relations with Russia will grow even more acrimonious.” (The Hill, 07.17.18)

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

“When we look back on it, Helsinki will be seen as a major turning point for this president, and for U.S. relations with the rest of the world,” Gvosdev says, adding that Trump lacked credibility and cemented perceptions of his relationship with Putin, “[killing] off any prospect of improving U.S.-Russia relations. … The message not just the Europeans but the Japanese and Israelis and others will take from Trump’s whole trip—and from the uproar that’s followed here at home—is that it’s time to choose a new partner, and maybe Russia is the more stable of the two now.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.18.18)

Henry Kissinger

Former U.S. Secretary of State
“It was a meeting that had to take place. I have advocated it for several years. It has been submerged by American domestic issues. It is certainly a missed opportunity. But I think one has to come back to something. Look at Syria and Ukraine. It’s a unique characteristic of Russia that upheaval in almost any part of the world affects it, gives it an opportunity and is also perceived by it as a threat. Those upheavals will continue. I fear they will accelerate. … I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident. … I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world. I have conducted innumerable summit meetings… [T]hey didn’t learn this one [Helsinki] from me.” (Financial Times, 07.20.18)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Director, Intelligence and Defense Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

“President Donald Trump demonstrated that he is as much an advocate for Russia’s interests [as] if he were indeed recruited by Russian intelligence and formally responding to Russian tasking. In fact, his handlers would probably exercise a greater degree of subtlety and discretion to ensure he did not go too far in revealing himself as an agent for Russian policies and interests. … For the already diminishing number of die-hard advocates of efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, the summit was a death blow.” (The Cipher Brief, 07.16.18)

Olga Oliker

Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

"My sense is very little was agreed on other than to keep talking on a number of issues." (CNBC, 07.16.18)

Regarding an extension of the New START treaty, discussions about U.S. missile defense systems and the INF Treaty: ““These are things that they [Trump and Putin] actually could have put together into something of a joint statement because there is enough agreement, even if it’s agreement to talk about the disagreements, to have gotten a ‘get’ out of the summit on these topics. And instead what we have is that the Russians passed over a paper with suggestions.” (NPR, 07.17.18)

Steven Pifer

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

“President Trump, when given the opportunity, did not name a single Russian misbehavior that has contributed to the decline in U.S.-Russian relations. If that's the message that President Putin is taking back home to Moscow, why should we expect that there are going to be any changes in Russian policy that have caused some of the problems over the last four years?” (NPR, 07.17.18)

"It was not a good summit. It was an embarrassing performance by President Trump. Not only did he take at face value President Putin's denial of election interference, he took that over the judgement of his own intelligence community. … I worry that Mr. Putin goes back to Moscow thinking, 'I got no criticism. I can continue these policies.' And in some cases these policies are very detrimental to American interests." (CNBC, 07.17.18)

“U.S. foreign policy interests would have been better served had Trump stayed home. … Based on the press conference, Vladimir Putin has every reason to be happy. … U.S. allies will likely keep their views to themselves publicly, but they have to be dismayed in private. Contrast Trump’s reluctance in Helsinki to criticize Putin or any Russian misbehavior with his eager readiness to criticize allies [at last week’s NATO summit] in Brussels.” (Reuters, 07.17.18)

Matthew Rojansky

Director, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center

“Putin described something as ‘a very interesting offer’… We don’t actually know of what the offer consisted, but it’s very interesting to me that they discussed Ukraine, and Putin said that there is ‘an interesting offer’ there. … So, when asked whether Putin asked for sanctions relief, Putin … simply says, ‘No, but we talked about the interests of our two business communities in increasing economic ties and how we might do that in the current environment.’ So, that’s code for, ‘Yeah, they talked about how to get around sanctions.’ They actually had … [a] surprisingly substantive conversation. We heard none of it in the press conference.” (CNN, 07.16.18)

Angela Stent

Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

“Trump is clearly playing to his domestic base; they love it. If you look at poll numbers now among his base, their view of Russia and Putin is going up. … Never in the history of U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian relations has an American president essentially said that he doesn’t agree with his own intelligence agencies, criticized them and essentially agreed with a Russian president who is a former KGB case officer. … No one has ever seen something like this before. It is unprecedented and it really does raise questions about what really is going on, why he would possibly say that in a public press conference." (CNBC, 07.17.18)

Andrew Weiss

Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrew Weiss said that in his prepared remarks Trump had for the first time managed to explain why he wanted a more co-operative relationship with Russia and was prepared to take the political heat for that. “If that’s all that had come out of this press conference, and there had been this kind of chumminess, I think we would have seen a kind of Singapore Kim Jong Un light. There would not have been a lot of process, there would not have been a lot of deliverables to point to, but it would have looked semi-credible… But due to Trump’s own lack of discipline … it went off the rails.” (Financial Times, 07.17.18)

Alexander Gabuev

Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center

“Nobody in Moscow who is realistic had any illusions that this one meeting can produce any breakthroughs. … The hope was at least we can start talking to each other.” Gabuev said Putin ably won over his domestic audiences, notably by pushing back at accusations of Russian election meddling with his own accusations against the U.S. Russians welcomed Putin’s offer to allow the FBI to interrogate Russian military intelligence officials accused of hacking the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And they especially welcomed Putin’s insistence on a tit-for-tat deal aimed at discrediting U.S. sanctions against rich and powerful Russians. And unsurprisingly, Russians welcomed Trump’s suggestion that he trusts Putin more than U.S. intelligence agencies. Russian officialdom “will be super-cautious in order not to damage Donald Trump any more than he did himself,” Gabuev said. (AP, 07.17.18)




Igor Ivanov

President, Russian International Affairs Council; Former Foreign Minister of Russia

“There is no point in deciding who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’ at the Helsinki summit: neither leader was expecting his counterpart to make unilateral concessions, and neither intended to make concessions. However, the presidents took a crucial step forward, paving the way for further steps in the future. … After the Helsinki summit, Moscow’s ability to maneuver in both the western and eastern directions will increase. …  An equally difficult and important period begins after Helsinki. How can we maximize the huge positive momentum provided by the summit? How can we prevent the cumbersome and sluggish bureaucratic machines of both countries from dragging us—accidentally or deliberately—back into the quagmire of pointless confrontation? … The Helsinki discussions have shown that security remains the central item on the agenda in U.S.–Russia relations. … This is why the parties should focus their attention on the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and the United States on the establishment of permanent mechanisms for military and political talks and consultations. This will require the immediate resumption of '2+2' talks between Russian and the US heads of foreign policy and defense ministries, the formation of an agenda for the most pressing problems, and the initiation of relevant talks. Among priority tasks is the prevention of unprovoked military incidents. In the longer term, the agenda could feature negotiations on prolonging the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the future of the INF Treaty. Moscow and Washington urgently need to establish an expert dialogue on cybersecurity issues, given the associated ambiguity and sensitivity.” (Russian International Affairs Council, 07.18.18)




Sergei Karaganov

Dean of the International Economics and Politics Faculty, Higher School of Economics

“It seems Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump did come to some preliminary agreements at the Helsinki summit. … [T]he Russian president mentioned some sort of possibilities for the demilitarization of the Golan Heights on the border between Israel and Syria. … As far as reactions to the summit’s outcome go, America’s and Europe’s were predictable. The losing political elites of the U.S. and Europe have an especially strong hatred for Trump as the symbol of their defeat. The chances that Trump will now be able to overcome this Russophobia that has emerged are practically nil. … Russia has been turned into a coauthor of the domestic [political] battle in the U.S. And although Trump is winning that domestic battle, the old elite will fight him to the end. Because … [he] threatens their position in the most serious way. Now there is a real possibility that Trump will go for a second term and win.” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 07.17.18, in Russian)




Andrei Kortunov

Director, Russian International Affairs Council

Putin’s apparent complacency about his summit success, and the general feeling in Moscow that Trump must have prevailed over his domestic opponents, may be due to a lack of understanding in the Kremlin of how the U.S. system works, says Andrei Kortunov. Russia policy risks becoming a long-term casualty of Trump’s domestic battles, he says. “Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. His word is final,” he says. “He tends to project that on other leaders he meets, which is why he does very well with authoritarian leaders, who have similar weight within their own political systems. It is difficult for him to see that the U.S. system doesn’t work this way,” and that anything Trump decides might get canceled out amid public outcry and congressional push-back. “Russia needs to get smarter, and diversify its outreach to various segments of the American establishment. We should be talking to the Democrats, Congress, think tanks, and others, explaining ourselves and forming relationships. It’s just not enough to meet the top guy and decide things with him. We urgently need to realize this.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.17.18)




Fyodor Lukyanov

Editor, Russia in Global Affairs

Lukyanov told the daily Vedomosti that "Syria, where there are concrete topics, and matters of strategic stability" was the most likely area for next steps. (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)

“It’s hard to say whether anything positive will come from this. It depends on whether they will actually work on any of the issues they discussed." (The Moscow Times, 07.17.18)

“If we were living through normal times, we would be justified in seeing Helsinki as a moderately successful summit… But these are anything but normal times. These days, issues of strategic policy are subordinated to domestic affairs, and any achievements can be derailed by the kind of angry, hostile reactions we are seeing [in the U.S.]… Trump certainly made a mistake by failing to seriously address the meddling issue that Americans are so preoccupied with. He even seemed to be taking sides with Putin… Many people in Moscow appear pleased at how good Putin looked in Helsinki, and may not be aware of the risk that it may have been completely counterproductive” to Russian long-term hopes of rebooting the relationship. “One thing we think was very significant is that Putin, for the first time, publicly spoke about Israeli security as a goal of Russian policy… Americans should join this deal, and it would be a shame if it got ruined by the toxic political atmosphere surrounding Trump.” (Christian Science Monitor, 07.17.18)

Lukyanov said he believes two issues of substance had come out of the summit. First, he believes Putin and Trump’s comments on Syria suggested a concrete agreement had likely been reached to curtail Iran’s presence close to Israel in southern Syria. Lukyanov also said he believes the two presidents' pledges to push to reinvigorate key nuclear arms control treaties meant that could now likely happen. (ABC News, 07.16.18)

“This was not the assertive Trump we saw with NATO or Britain,” said Lukyanov. “Putin led, Trump followed. And that … is likely to cause a tsunami in the United States.” (Independent, 07.17.18)




Alexei Makarkin

Deputy Head, Moscow's Center for Political Technologies

“Russian political institutions are very weak and therefore, as president, Putin felt much more confident [than Trump] during the news conference… Putin is only constrained by his own mind-set. … The meeting was valuable to Putin because it showed that despite the indictments and poison accusations, the West is still compelled to speak to Russia and regards it as an important and respectable country.” (New York Times, 07.18.18)




Yuri Rogulyov

Professor of American Studies, Moscow State University

Rogulyov said that bilateral relations were moving from "megaphone diplomacy to direct negotiations." (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)




Dmitri Trenin

Director, Carnegie Moscow Center

Dmitri Trenin said the talks signaled a new point in relations. “We are exiting a period of 'no dialogue,' and Russia is ceasing to be toxic,” Trenin said. The process will continue if Trump and Putin visit each other's capitals in the near future, he said. (New York Times, 07.18.18)

“I don't think that Mr. Putin's power is so vast, so big that he could have manipulated Donald Trump. Donald Trump has his own reasons, I believe, to say things, [or] not to say things. Donald Trump is involved in a cutthroat competition or even worse than that with the bulk of the U.S. political establishment, including in his own party.

What happened in this Helsinki summit—and I think it's very important—is that Putin has not only cast his lot very publicly with Donald Trump but he has involved himself from now on in domestic political strife in the United States. … When we start playing in other nations' political struggles, things become more complex. And the likelihood of conflict being exacerbated and escalated to a much higher level than before is getting greater.” (NPR, 07.17.18)




Alexei Venediktov

Editor in Chief, Ekho Moskvy Radio

Venediktov said the composition of the delegations at the Helsinki lunch revealed the differing agendas of the two sides. "On the Russian side at that lunch ... there was, of course, [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov… But further down sat Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. … Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov, and the director of the Foreign Ministry's North America department, Georgy Borisenko. I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister. … Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. … Now let's take the American delegation. … John Bolton is in charge of global [national] security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [U.S. presidential] election. … You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry." Venediktov said the delegations showed that the main U.S. concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and election interference, while Putin's concerns were Syria and "public relations." (RFE/RL, 07.18.18)




Photo: Putin meets with scientists in Siberia, February 2018. Kremlin press service.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.