n July, 2009, Barack Obama flew to Moscow for talks with Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s President, but included on his schedule a meeting with Vladimir Putin, who, in a short-lived political hibernation as Prime Minister, remained the most powerful figure in the country. One morning, Obama and his entourage drove to Putin’s residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, a forested estate twenty miles outside the capital. The spread was lavish, as Michael McFaul—Obama’s chief adviser on Russia policy, and later, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow—writes in his memoir, “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” with the table sagging under the weight of several types of caviar and exotic eggs. “A server in traditional nineteenth-century peasant dress took off his tall leather boot, using it to stoke the fire in the samovar warming water for our tea,” McFaul writes.
Before Obama could say much, Putin launched into a long recounting of America’s misdeeds: how Washington snubbed Russia’s offers of help after the September 11th attacks, committed the fatal sin of the Iraq War, and stirred up political upheaval among Russia’s neighbors. It was a story of grievance and frustration, with Russia as victim. Putin, McFaul writes, “knew how to tell a dramatic story. For each vignette or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting.” The meeting had been scheduled for sixty minutes, and “by minute fifty-five the U.S. president had not said a thing.”
On July 16th, in Helsinki, it will be Trump’s turn. Putin is sure to begin their bilateral meeting with a similarly aggrieved and discursive lecture, with Washington in the role of antihero, committing the sins of hubris, overreach, and disrespect. (On some points, Putin may not be that far off in diagnosing some of the chronic pathologies of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment.)
Putin will likely explain how the Obama Administration mishandled and spoiled U.S.-Russian relations over the past several years, a fraught period in which the two countries clashed over everything from Edward Snowden to Ukraine to U.S. election interference. Given Trump’s animus for Obama, and his knee-jerk inclination to favor any policy that represents the opposite of his predecessor’s, such a narrative may find a receptive audience. In fact, on many of the points most dear to Putin, Trump has already shown he may not need much convincing: he has questioned the relevance of nato, suggested that Crimea may be Russian after all, and repeatedly called into doubt the fact of Russia’s interference in the Presidential election that put him in office.
So what does that mean for Putin’s aims in Helsinki? On Wednesday, the day the details of the meeting were formally announced, I met with Andrey Klimov, the deputy chair of the foreign-affairs committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. His position is not an especially influential one but it makes him a faithful and rather crystalline factotum of Kremlin policy. “Every day, Trump is given reports from the C.I.A., the N.S.C., State Department, whomever else, telling him about what Russia has done now, where it has misbehaved: they poisoned somebody here, they gave some money there. And so he has a certain conception of Russia and Putin,” Klimov told me. The meeting in Helsinki is an opportunity for Trump to “hear the other side, like in court. Putin can explain why he did this or that, why this policy is necessary.” Exotic eggs or not, Trump may well nod along.
For months, Russia has not had much of a policy for dealing with the United States other than hoping that things do not get worse—whether in terms of new sanctions or a direct military confrontation in Syria—and waiting for a summit to materialize. Much of the Russian political establishment is invested in the idea that Trump himself may well like to improve relations with Russia, but is constantly hemmed in by Congress and a Washington foreign-policy bureaucracy that won’t allow him to do so. As Russian officials see it, a one-on-one meeting is an opportunity to overcome those meddlesome bodies and make a direct appeal, an approach that fits the habits and beliefs of the Russian ruling élite—they understand and know how to deal with individuals, less so institutions, with their amorphous centers of power and internal checks and balances.
The recent meeting in Singapore between Trump and Kim Jong Un was certainly instructive. Russian officials took note, Andrey Kortunov, the director of the Russian International Affairs Council, told me. “Putin looked at the Singapore summit and saw that Kim was able to lower the threat to himself with minimal cost, and is sure to think, ‘Am I any worse, or what?’ ”
Singapore aside, Trump has generally shown that he is both malleable and ignorant—an ideal combination for someone like Putin, who will surely try to dazzle Trump with details like those he rolled out for his meeting with Obama, such as when he told the former President of how the U.S. once passed Russia a piece of counterterrorism intelligence. “Dramatically, he waved away the waiters serving us tea, leaned in, and told Obama that they had used this information to ‘liquidate’ the terrorists,” McFaul writes in his recounting of the scene.” One can only imagine the delight of Trump, the wannabe tough guy, at hearing such a tale.
Yet what makes Trump the most understandable and attractive American interlocutor Putin has ever had is something more fundamental: namely, Trump’s zero-sum, utterly transactional view of politics. The primacy of values over interests—or rather, a rejection of the idea that the former might have some relevance for the latter—mirrors Putin’s own view of the world. Klimov told me that previous U.S. Presidents, particularly Obama, were driven by a belief in the “universal virtue of the American system” and the notion that “the more states around the world that accept and follow this system, the better.” Klimov called this “politics as ideological-philosophical expansion.” But Trump, he told me, sees “politics as business.” With values out of the way, everything is tradable.
Still, no one in Moscow expects any great achievements from the summit; there is little expectation that Trump will, say, lift sanctions against Russia or formally recognize Crimea. That is not the point—at least not yet. Most centrally, Putin is after the symbolism of a bilateral summit, as a clear recognition that U.S. attempts to isolate and marginalize Russia have failed. Inherent in the high-profile meeting in Helsinki, sure to be heavy on television pageantry, is an admission that Russia is a world power that cannot be ignored and must be dealt with as an equal. Klimov called this a “return to common sense,” and an achievement in and of itself: “When you go from abnormal to normal, that’s already good.”
I heard something similar when I spoke with Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, and a prominent foreign-policy commentator. “The lack of contact is a bit alarming,” he explained, noting that, even in the tensest days of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet leaders had active channels of communication, which they used to maintain a basic understanding of the other side and avoid accidental escalation. Adding to the discomfort with the near-total absence of dialogue is “a situation when the President of the United States is, shall we say, not exactly a very standard figure, it is a tad scary.” Russian officials, Putin included, haven’t yet managed to get a solid handle on Trump—they are no less confused than the rest of us when, say, he contradicts himself, and his generals, in the span of a few days on the question of whether U.S. forces are getting out of Syria or, in fact, escalating military operations there. “Putin wants to understand what kind of person is this,” Lukyanov said.
As far as Putin and his inner circle are concerned, the Trump Presidency has been full of promising statements but unwelcome action, whether in signing a new sanctions bill, agreeing to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, or launching missile strikes in Syria. The result of such a scatterbrained mismatch between talk and action is that, after a year and a half, the kind of off-the-cuff remarks that create such a political storm in the U.S. aren’t taken all that seriously in Moscow. I couldn’t find one knowledgeable expert or politician, for example, who paid much serious attention to Trump’s reported comments from the G-7 in Canada, when he suggested that Crimea belongs to Russia because most people speak Russian there. “It’s clear by now that Trump is a ‘tongue without bones’ ”—a Russian saying for a person liable to say anything at all—Lukyanov told me. “It’s not necessary to react.”
The substance of the Helsinki summit is expected to center on talks over the war in Syria, Ukraine, and likely arms control. That latter issue is one where some agreement on the legal and technical levels is possible, which makes it an obvious place for Putin and Trump’s advisers to want to start. For political reasons, Trump will have to raise the question of election interference, though both he and Putin share an interest in keeping the conversation short and vague, without getting into the specifics of Russia’s influence operation in 2016.
Several sources in Moscow told me in recent days that Putin could be willing to talk about election interference in terms that are either extremely narrow, or incredibly broad: on the one hand, Putin could be open to signing a joint statement in which both sides agree to refrain from hacking the other’s voting systems. (That would leave all other forms of meddling unaddressed.) On the other hand, Putin would happily go for a declaration that speaks to sovereignty and non-interference, more broadly, with elections being just one of the issues covered. The Russian side would interpret such an agreement as limiting the actions of institutions like foreign-funded media and N.G.O.s, which the Kremlin has long believed are agents of regime change. If Putin could get Trump to agree to such a statement, it would be seen as a great victory in Moscow.
As sure as Putin is try to manipulate Trump, he also knows that he needs to deliver something that satisfies Trump’s ego and that he can sell back home as a great triumph. The Kremlin will spend the next two weeks coming up with what that may be—a trifle that looks great while being sold on television, but one that carries little risk or cost. “Everyone knows that Trump needs something he can interpret as a victory,” Kortunov said. “But what does Russia have to offer?” He told me that the answer wasn’t yet clear. “It will be a personal decision of Putin himself, quite possibly made during the meeting itself.”
One historic weakness of the Putin system is that it cannot move in reverse: it does not have the ability to acknowledge mistakes or abandon counterproductive policies. That is partially a matter of habit and inertia, but also a function of belief. As Vladimir Frolov, a foreign-affairs columnist at Republic, a Russian news and politics site, explained, Putin and his advisers are hemmed in by a certainty that “any course correction leads to wholesale capitulation.” The result is that it is very hard for Russia to make even modest, otherwise rational adjustments to its policies, whether in Syria or Ukraine or in its relations with the United States. With time, Frolov said, this has led to a kind of “magical thinking”: Putin and those around him somehow think that they can “achieve a turnaround without making meaningful adjustments in their course.” Helsinki will show whether, in Trump, they have found a U.S. President who makes the magical real.