Ahead of his summit with President Donald Trump, it had been widely said that all Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had to do to come out a winner was to show up to the meeting in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, on Monday.
Putin did come and by all accounts the result of his first full summit with Trump has been a hearty success for the Russian leader. Russian officials have predictably been praising the meeting and experts, even those generally critical of the Kremlin, can see little but positives for Putin from the encounter.
“It was the maximum possible and it really can become a good start for the restoration of cooperation on a systematic and regular basis,” said Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs Russia's senate foreign affairs commission.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov enthused afterwards that the summit had gone “fabulously” and “better than super.”
Coming into the summit, the Kremlin had said that it would be successful if it could restore normal communications with the U.S. Doing so would signal that Russia had gone some distance in turning a page on the isolation that Moscow has lived under for the past four years. At least in terms of Trump himself, that goal appears to have been achieved.
“Putin has demonstrated that Russia is not isolated, without making any concessions,” said Maria Lipman, editor-in-chief of the journal Counterpoint and a veteran commentator on Russia.
At the press conference following his meeting with Putin in Helsinki’s presidential palace, Trump effectively tried to declare an end to the period of dire relations and herald an era of new cooperation between Russia and the U.S. The U.S.-Russia relationship had "never been worse than it is now," Trump said.
"However that changed as of about four hours ago," he added.
At the press conference, Trump found himself describing a narrative that the Kremlin has been arguing for years: that the U.S. was to blame for the confrontation between Russia and the U.S.
“I think that we're all to blame,” Trump said. “I hold both countries responsible. We both made some mistakes.”
Before arriving for the meeting, Trump had gone even further, writing on Twitter that "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity."
Russia's foreign ministry responded to that by re-tweeting it with the comment "We agree."
“Putin in a sense lures him into this rhetoric that it’s better to cooperate than to engage in confrontation,” Lipman said. She noted that it appeared as if the two were at times "playing along together."
Trump’s comments, and in particular his seeming acceptance of Putin’s denial that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election, has sparked a furious backlash in the U.S., with senators from both parties condemning that assertion and Trump's performance generally as betrayal and a capitulation to Putin.
Sen. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote in a statement that “President Trump’s performance today was the most damaging and shameful surrender of American values and interests in modern history.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Experts in Russia, however, felt the results were less dramatic, cautioning that, in reality, they saw very little substance in what was announced by the two leaders and noting that it remained to be seen whether Trump could actually deliver on the commitments he had made.
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, who sometimes advises the Russian government, dismissed much of the two leaders' comments as "atmospherics" that would have little direct effect on the relationship with Russia, no matter its intense political impact in the U.S.
“I guess that this performance will provoke a storm in the United States and the question is whether he will be able to stand up to that and still commit to what they discussed or not," Lukyanov said.
Lukyanov, though, said he believes that two issues of substance had come out of the summit. First, he said, 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 that the two presidents' pledges to push to reinvigorate key nuclear arms control treaties meant that could now likely happen.
However, Lukyanov said that beyond those areas he had doubts that Trump would be able to hold to a course of more fundamental change in the U.S.-Russia relationship, noting that proposals that came out of Trump's first meeting with Putin in Germany last year collapsed almost immediately.
“It’s quite obvious that his capacity is limited," Lukyanov said. "Again it’s a question about his resilience. If he, as he did last year, he will start to distance himself from things that were discussed, as he did last year, then nothing will change."