It’s What Wasn’t Said at the Trump-Putin Press Conference That Really Matters

Donald J. Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16 resulted in some very poor optics for the US president. While Trump faced tough questions from American journalists, the Russian president appeared on equal footing with his US counterpart. It is important, however, to not get caught up in the theatrics of the press conference. Little, if anything, is known about the content of Trump and Putin’s one-on-one meeting, which lasted more than two hours. Indeed, what wasn’t said at the press conference is potentially more important than what was said.

First and foremost, neither leader made any public concessions on key policy issues. Trump did not publicly recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor did he call for the lifting of sanctions on Moscow. Putin did not promise a Russian withdrawal from Eastern Ukraine and reiterated Russia’s claim over Crimea.

Trump proclaimed an improvement of US-Russia relations without publicly acknowledging what had caused their deterioration in the first place. Russian cyber and information warfare, meddling in European and US elections, military operations in Ukraine, and sponsorship of separatism were not mentioned. Trump’s desire to turn a new page seemed to supersede all else.

There are many unanswered questions about the private meeting between the two leaders. For example, what key national interests were declared, what red lines drawn, threats proclaimed, deals struck, or promises pledged? Was Trump helping Putin save face at the press conference or the other way around? Was there simply too little substance agreed upon behind closed doors?

While Trump’s conciliatory position toward Putin may have seemed surprising, especially given the sharp words he directed at US allies at the NATO Summit in Brussels just days earlier, the US president’s desire to improve relations and restart dialogue with Moscow is not unusual. US presidents going back to the Cold War have sought the same, though they largely failed. In 2009, Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declared a “reset” of relations with Moscow, less than a year after Russia’s summer military campaign in Georgia. Similarly, George W. Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes in 2001 to see “his soul” and determined he could trust him, though relations started deteriorating as soon as oil prices started to climb in the 2000s. Trump’s ambition to improve relations from his declared all-time low are thus not as surprising or insidious as his critics claim.

Yet like his predecessors, Trump will likely not succeed in his effort. This is because the tensions between the United States and Russia are not driven by personality differences, misunderstandings, or lack of dialogue. They are the result of a clash of national interests between Russia on the one hand and the United States and its European allies on the other. For Russia, this means maintaining or recovering its privileged sphere of interests in the countries that formed the former Soviet Union and its satellite states—many of these have either become US allies or have formally joined the European Union and NATO. For Putin, it means acceptance of his notion of state sovereignty, and disregard for human rights and international law, all while Russia is accepted as a global great (if not super-) power, that benefits from the international financial and trade systems. We can only speculate as to whether these deeper sources of tensions were discussed behind closed doors; they certainly did not come up at the press conference.

Putin and Trump’s prepared statements harked back to the days of the Cold War, with two equal superpowers discussing global problems and nuclear armament, peppered with words such as international security, strategic stability, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism. Working together to reduce nuclear proliferation has traditionally been the starting point in improving the US-Russia relationship. In his “reset” policies, Obama pursued this objective with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010, building on the armament agreements of the 1980s, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and START.  The New START, which will expire in 2021, is a non-controversial treaty and it will likely be renewed or extended for another five years. Meanwhile, there are considerable tensions over the INF Treaty, which the United States maintains Russia has violated while Moscow demurs. Indeed in 2014, Russia launched a nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the SSC-8, with a range capacity of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles). Coaxing Russia into compliance will be much more difficult here, but necessary given the SSC-8 security implications for the European continent.

While finding common ground on arms reduction is in the interest of both sides, such agreements would not resolve the deep conflicts of interests between the United States and Russia when it comes to Europe and the global international order. Even on this nuclear disarmament front, the Helsinki summit cannot be described as a real success. Other than generic calls for cooperation, neither leader provided any tangible example of progress on this issue or even an action-item agenda.

Notably, among the topics that Trump did not mention was Ukraine and Crimea. This omission sent a signal that Trump was willing to passively accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, just as the Bush and Obama administrations overlooked the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and Moscow’s efforts to create frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.  In contrast, while both Trump and Putin mentioned Syria, promises to cooperate on ending the war in that country sounded hollow. The United States and Russia have had conflicting interests in Syria since Russia launched a military operation in support of Bashar al-Assad in 2015.

So, what is the verdict on the Helsinki summit? The jury is still out. Indeed, the diplomatic working agenda between the two countries will reveal more in the coming year than the public performance at Helsinki. An improvement of US-Russia relations, however, will prove elusive for it was what wasn’t said at Helsinki that will continue to divide both sides.

Agnia Grigas, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, is the author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire” and “The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas”. Follow her on Twitter @AgniaGrigas.

Image: Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures during a joint news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)