After the summit: No new cold war, but no warming of ties either

Why We Wrote This

President Trump's remarks in Helsinki created a political firestorm at home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the summit sent strong signals about the future of US-Russia ties and Moscow's behavior.

Mikhail Klimentyev/AP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, where Russia has been instrumental in supporting President Bashar al-Assad and has become, as the Syrian civil war moves toward conclusion, the main power broker in the country.

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At their summit in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed considerably more entente than discord. That, along with signals Mr. Trump sent previously at the NATO summit in Brussels, would seem to quell recent fears that a new cold war between the world powers was in the offing. But, say US-Russia experts, neither is a sudden golden era in bilateral relations, and the domestic storm over Trump’s remarks is a strong indication. Trump’s own top aides continue to speak of Russia in very different terms from those of the president – referring to Mr. Putin’s Russia as an “adversary” responsible for considerable “malign activity.” Nikolas Gvosdev at the US Naval War College says, “you have a US president who evidently is not interested in the things producing conflict with Russia.” The risk now, he says, is that Russia will feel emboldened to move further along its interventionist path. Trump’s record from his Europe trip “will suggest to … the Kremlin that being more aggressive pays off, and that they are in a position to realize some gains.”

Remember when a sudden burst of Russian intervention from Ukraine to Syria, efforts to undermine Western democracies, and above all, Moscow’s chosen role as chief global opponent of the US-led liberal international order, all spurred predictions of an impending second cold war?

You can forget about it.

After President Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday – and especially given the displays at the two leaders’ extraordinary press conference of considerably more entente than discord – the heralds of an extended period of cold-war-like tensions and confrontation between the two powers have quieted.

No one is predicting a sudden golden era in US-Russia relations. Indeed quite the opposite is likely: The domestic reaction in the United States to Mr. Trump’s performance at the two leaders’ press conference suggests any Trump initiative to improve rock-bottom relations with Russia is a non-starter, US-Russia experts say.

That is true in part because in the US, Congress has a role to play in how the relationship evolves, particularly in determining the fate of US sanctions on Russia over its hybrid war in Ukraine. At the same time, Trump’s own top aides continue to speak of Russia in very different terms from those of the president – referring to Mr. Putin’s Russia as an “adversary” responsible for considerable “malign activity.”

But the signals Trump sent out over the past week – not just in Helsinki with Putin, but at the preceding summit with NATO alliance leaders in Brussels – suggest to a number of US-Russia experts that the “Cold War II” envisioned so widely beginning in 2014 won’t occur after all.

“A cold war requires by definition two sides to confront each other,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs and US-Russia expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “But if you have a US president who evidently is not interested in the things producing conflict with Russia – if the president is less interested in maintaining the Western alliances the US has built, in sustaining US leadership of a certain world order, or in the US position in the Middle East – that suggests something to the Russians about the confrontation and the determination of the other side to pursue it.”

An emboldened Russia

The risk Professor Gvosdev sees in a relationship he envisions remaining “stuck” in inactivity – with the US unable now to pursue initiatives with Russia that would serve its own interests – is that Russia will feel emboldened to move further along its interventionist path.

Trump’s stance in Europe over the past week – culminating in his “performance” alongside Putin at the Helsinki press conference and the firestorm it has caused at home – “will suggest to Russians in the Kremlin that being more aggressive pays off, and that they are in a position to realize some gains,” Gvosdev says. “The risk is they will say, ‘What else can we get out of this situation?’ and will be tempted to try for additional geopolitical payoffs, in Europe or the Middle East.”

Of course the big change since the widespread predictions of a second cold war is not in Putin, but in the White House arrival of Trump. The president’s positions on a list of issues that led to the back-to-the-future prognostications suggest no interest in confrontation.

On Syria, Trump shows every sign of deferring to Russia as it completes its project of reestablishing Bashar al-Assad’s hold over the country – even as he displays little appetite for pressuring Russia to “rein in Iranian activity in Syria,” Gvosdev says.

Although Trump has ultimately gone along with his own administration’s proposals on Ukraine and has ramped up measures to counter Russian incursions – for example providing some lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military – he has also suggested an understanding of Russia’s actions in its western neighbor, particularly in Crimea.

Pavel Rebrov/Reuters/File
A woman holds a placard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during celebrations for the third anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 18, 2017.

And Trump has shown scant interest in countering Russian attacks on Western democracies, such as its disinformation campaigns and efforts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.

Trump did attempt Tuesday to backtrack on his Helsinki statements that suggested once again that he believes Putin’s “very strong” argument that there was no Russian project to influence the 2016 election. But after seeming Tuesday to accept the US intelligence consensus of Russian meddling, on Wednesday he asserted that such activities had stopped, again putting him at odds with his own top advisers (the White House press secretary subsequently tried to walk his latest remarks back). And the overall impression left by Trump’s week in Europe is that he sides more with a Russian authoritarian leader than with US allies in European democracies.

Supporters of the president’s foreign policy say Trump’s actions in Helsinki confirm his stance since he was a candidate that “Peace with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” as former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan wrote on his website Monday. If the Trump-Putin press conference gave the traditional foreign-policy community palpitations, Mr. Buchanan added, it’s because Trump demonstrated that he is not going to allow Russian activities in Ukraine or Syria get in the way of the US pursuing common interests with Russia, such as in arms reductions.

“Looking back over the week, from Brussels to Britain to Helsinki, Trump’s message has been clear, consistent, and startling,” Buchanan said. “There will be no ‘Cold War II.’”

'Peculiar dualism' on Russia

That may be, but neither is Trump going to find an easy path to that “peace” with Russia – particularly after demonstrating so little ability or desire to stand up to Putin’s provocations, analysts say.

“When we look back on it, Helsinki will be seen as a major turning point for this president, and for US relations with the rest of the world,” Gvosdev says, adding that Trump lacked credibility and cemented perceptions of his relationship with Putin, “[killing] off any prospect of improving US-Russia relations.”

One high hurdle standing in the way of any presidential efforts to pursue better relations with Russia will be the wall of opposition constructed by Trump’s own senior national security advisers.

Highlighting what he calls a “peculiar dualism” in the Trump administration’s approach to Russia – the stark disconnect between the president’s and the rest of the administration’s positions – Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies says the dualism raises serious questions about the US strategy towards Russia.

The president’s own National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy are both much tougher toward Russia than the president’s rhetoric, Mr. Cordesman says. For example, the December 2017 National Security Strategy states that “Russia aims to weaken US influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners.”

At the NATO summit, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison insisted that Trump administration policy would focus on countering Russian “malign activity” in Europe, the Middle East, and across a broad swath of US allies globally.

Weakened global leadership

Analysts note that at the Helsinki press conference, Putin made a point of saying he did indeed want Trump to win the 2016 election. Whether done with this intention or not, they add, the Russian president’s public insertion of himself into US political affairs will be another factor in assuring that Russia remains a source of political turmoil in the US – and that US-Russia relations remain unproductive, perhaps as long as Trump is president.

“The issue is not whether the Russians interfered [in our political process] – they did,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington. “The issue is whether we are now capable of doing two things simultaneously, namely pushing back against future Russian meddling, and engaging effectively with Russia on a wide array of critical issues. Our current domestic politics still makes that kind of carefully calibrated diplomacy all but impossible.”

For Gvosdev, it’s not going too far to say that the long-term effect of Helsinki – and Trump’s week in Europe more broadly – will be to weaken US global leadership and to send US allies turning elsewhere for partnerships.

“The message not just the Europeans but the Japanese and Israelis and others will take from Trump’s whole trip – and from the uproar that’s followed here at home – is that it’s time to choose a new partner, and maybe Russia is the more stable of the two now,” Gvosdev says.

Noting that French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin on the sidelines of the World Cup, and that Iranian leaders were recently in Russia seeing Putin – as was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month – Gvosdev says such meetings reflect enhanced Russian clout, and fading trust in US leadership.

“The postwar and cold war perspective that the American president speaks on behalf of US alliances around the world was already weakening,” he says, “but after the last week the sentiment will be even stronger that it’s no longer the case.”

•Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed from Washington.

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