Beneath the bluster, Russia remains isolated after Helsinki

Putin may get Trump's praise, but Moscow's not getting the help it needs.

Don't bet on American policies on Russia actually changing much after the Helsinki summit. CREDIT: CHRIS MCGRATH / GETTY
Don't bet on American policies on Russia actually changing much after the Helsinki summit. CREDIT: CHRIS MCGRATH / GETTY

For many, Monday’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was an unmitigated victory for Moscow.

A photo op, a nominal end to Russian isolation, and, most importantly, a breathtaking moment of Trump coming to Russia’s defense against widespread conclusions that the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. presidential election — it all points to the Kremlin getting everything it wanted, and then some.

Contrary to much of the hand-wringing, however, the reality remains that the press conference was heavy on rhetoric, and light on actual substantive changes moving forward. Buried in Trump’s embarrassing defense of Russian election interference — which included the president claiming the U.S. is also partly to blame for Moscow’s interference efforts — is the fact that, after the summit, it appears little will actually change regarding America’s policy on Russia.

While Trump’s rhetoric only intensified criticism that he’d been soft on Russia, or that he prefers the company of autocrats like Putin to those of America’s democratic allies, it appears Washington’s policy of sanctions and quasi-containment will continue apace.


Take Crimea, for example. Trump, unlike any other prominent American politician, has come closest to moving the U.S. toward recognizing Crimea as Russian  — a move that would put the U.S. in the company of North Korea, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela. (Russia’s move into Crimea was the first forced annexation in Europe since World War II.)

For years, Trump has blamed former U.S. President Barack Obama — who was responsible for attempting to “reset” U.S. policy toward Russia in 2008 — for being “too soft” on Russia, and implicitly permitting Russia to invade southern Ukraine.

Trump has further peddled Russian propaganda, saying in 2016 that the “people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Just last week, Trump responded to a question about potential recognition in typically evasive fashion, responding, “We’re going to see what happens.”

So much for all that. On Monday, Crimea barely came up during the press conference, earning fewer mentions than topics like Syria or Hillary Clinton. One reporter asked Putin about Trump’s comments on Crimea, especially during their one-on-one meeting, and Putin offered a far clearer take on Trump’s position than the U.S. president ever has. Said Putin:

The posture of President Trump on Crimea is well-known, and he stands firmly by it. He continues to maintain it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different. We held a referendum in strict compliance with the UN Charter and international legislation. For us, we put paid to this issue.

Where Crimea at least got a passing mention, the topic of sanctions against Russia and Russian officials — which have continued to increase throughout 2018 — never even arose during Monday’s press conference. There is little indication the U.S. will change its sanctions policies anytime soon, despite Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) offering to consider lifting some of the sanctions in place earlier this month. (Johnson’s suggestion was swatted down by his Republican colleagues.)

Interestingly, Trump also doubled down on American opposition to the planned Nord Stream II pipeline, which would allow Russia to skirt Eastern Europe transit countries like Ukraine to deliver gas directly to Germany and other Western European markets.


The pipeline would lessen Western European dependence on Ukrainian stability — and theoretically lessen Western European resolve to aid Ukraine’s domestic pro-Western development. The project — which the Center for European Policy Analysis recently described as “one of the greatest threats to European solidarity and energy security” — is opposed by a number of American NATO allies, including Poland, Slovakia, and the Baltic states.

Much of the criticism for Trump’s performance at the NATO summit last week centered on how he voiced his opposition to the pipeline; it was Germany’s participating in the Nord Stream II pipeline that caused Trump, in part, to describe Berlin as “a captive of Russia” regarding energy supply. Said Trump at the time, “I think it’s very inappropriate… You’re making Russia richer.” Trump added later that “You’re supposed to be fighting for someone and then that someone gives billions of dollars to the one you’re, you know, guarding against. I think it’s ridiculous.”

On Monday, a Russian reporter asked Trump about American opposition to the pipeline. While Trump used less pointed language than previously, his comments mirrored broader U.S. opposition to the pipeline. “I just wish [Russia] luck,” he said. “I mean, I did. I discussed [the pipeline] with Angela Merkel in pretty strong tones. But I also know where they’re all coming from and they have a very close source [in Russia].” (U.S. policy also happens to line up with domestic interests in exporting liquefied natural gas to European markets.)

All told, Monday’s press conference was heavy on bizarre rhetoric, especially as it pertained to Trump dismissing the widely accepted conclusion that Russia meddled to help Trump’s candidacy — a conclusion reiterated most recently by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and mentioned in the most recent indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.


But when it comes to American policy regarding Russia, it appears little will change. Trump may be far cozier with Putin than he is with any of the U.S.’s European allies, but that warmth apparently doesn’t count for much when it comes down to actual policy changes.