I’ve been watching Russian American relations for more than a quarter century and Russian President Vladimir Putin and his meetings with world leaders for 18 years. I’ve never seen anything quite like today.
A new era of warm relations between the leaders of Russia and the United States appears to have dawned, but not in the way anyone could have anticipated. Putin has triumphed. President Donald Trump said of today’s one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki: “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”
The news conference was most striking for what Trump didn’t say.
The president of the United States made no mention whatsoever of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or intervention in Ukraine, the event that hurled Russia’s relations with the West and the United States into their worst state since the Cold War.
On the most sensitive issue of all, President Trump not only did not condemn Russia, he again expressed doubt Russia did anything untoward at all. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this : I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The issue of the sanctions themselves didn’t come up at all. Not once.
At times, it was as if the two presidents were singing from the same hymn sheet.
At one point, Putin articulated Trump’s position on Crimea for him, allowing the Trump to avoid it altogether. The “posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known, and he stands firmly by it. He continued to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.”
Later in the press conference, Trump teed up a proposal from Putin, saying his Russian counterpart “has an interesting idea” that he may “very well want to address”.
The idea, by the way, was itself extraordinary. Putin said that if Robert Mueller was to request access to the 12 Russian military intelligence officers he’d just indicted, Russia would consider it on condition the United States provide Russian prosecutors with access to Bill Browder, the architect of many of the West’s sanctions against Russia and of Putin’s fiercest critics. Russia has charged him with fraud and money laundering – charges Browder says are politically motivated.
There was plenty of praise.
Trump heaped praise on Putin — congratulating his counterpart on “hosting one of the best World Cups ever.” Putin responded by awarding Trump with a soccer ball, wishing the U.S. luck when it hosts the competition in eight years. The president said he’d give it to his son, merrily passing it on to the First Lady, who sat in the first row.
When a Russian reporter prompted Trump to talk about the U.S.’s adversarial relationship with Russia, the president of the United States said, “Well, actually I called him a competitor. And a good competitor he is. And I think the word ‘competitor’ is a compliment.” I haven’t seen Putin have this kind of fun with an American president in years.
Early in the day, as Pres. Trump outlined what they’d discussed, he made it clear ‘bad things’ weren’t really going to be discussed, at least in public, saying “a lot of good things and things to talk about…trade, military, missiles, nuclear, China.”
The presidents’ demeanor and body language was telling.
Putin arrived late to his first bilateral summit with Trump. To be fair — not too late though; he once kept German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting for more than four hours at a meeting in Milan (and me and my camera outside the hotel in the dead of the night). He’s also kept former President Obama waiting. In fact, he’s late to pretty much everything, a reminder that the Russian president keeps his own schedule. It shouldn’t be treated as an affront.
Trump, who was waiting at his hotel for Putin to fly in ahead of the meeting, then proceeded to delay his departure. Quid pro quo had been established.
When the two leaders sat down for their first summit ever, Putin walked into the room first. That’s not a faux pas – like when Trump walked in front of Queen Elizabeth as the two reviewed the troops – but when Putin also spoke first, it felt like the start of a pattern.
Putin’s comments at the outset were brief and were statesman-like — bereft of emotion. He spoke in measured, short bites, allowing the consecutive translation to keep up.
Trump, who spoke second, spoke at length, leaning in towards the Russian president and a clutch of cameramen. Putin sat deep in his seat, his body tilted away from everyone else. As Trump spoke, Putin, who speaks some English and would have understood a good 90 percent of what Pres. Trump was saying, indulged himself in the translation…
so he got the comments twice.
Putin looked a little tired, disengaged, and underwhelmed with it all. (You may remember that Obama once described Putin “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”)
Trump seemed to be seeking Putin’s approval, and the Russian president did little to reveal it. Even Trump’s forecast, “I think we’ll end up having an extraordinary relationship.” didn’t elicit any reaction from the Russian president.
That, by the way, is the Russian President’s default demeanour. He doesn’t trust Western leaders, and he definitely doesn’t trust American presidents. He’s seen three of them come and go during his rule and none of them are friends.
That’s how the day started. But, by the end of the press conference, Trump seemed to have won over Putin. The two ended their press conference with beaming smiles and a grizzly handshake before walking into another room to enjoy some more time together and give separate interviews to the same network, Fox News.