Donald Trump returned from Helsinki and his meeting with Vladimir Putin with nothing in hand except a soccer ball from the World Cup (“That will go to my son, Barron”). For his part, Putin, looking very much at ease, said that now the Cold War was “a thing of the past,” and outlined a number of areas in which he would want to “improve the relationship” with the US.
In the end, the reactions in the US were highly negative, and Europe looked on in dismay. After a longer-than-expected two-hour tête-à-tête, followed by a late lunch where the two heads of state were accompanied by a delegation of six officials each, at the joint press conference, with Putin by his side, Trump effectively denied that there had been any Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and called the ongoing investigation by US special prosecutor Robert Mueller a “witch hunt.” According to Trump, the investigation is poisoning the relations between the US and Russia, which had “never been worse”—of course, all Obama’s fault, after years of “US foolishness and stupidity,” as Trump had tweeted earlier.
Putin denied any Russian interference in US elections, and Trump found the Russian president’s denials “strong and powerful” (dismissing the conclusions reached by US intelligence agencies), and, finding agreement with Putin that there was “no collusion” (i.e. between Trump’s own campaign and the Russians), welcomed the Russian proposal to cooperate in the investigation.
The Russian president claimed he had not looked deeply into the “rumors,” or into the recent indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers in the US. But he promised he would and that the 12 might even be allowed to be questioned by American investigators—but only if, in return, Russia was also permitted to interrogate Americans they suspected of illegal acts.
“I was an intelligence officer myself,” Putin said coyly, and he never directly denied the possibility that he might have compromising material with which he could blackmail Trump. On the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it seems that Trump kept particularly quiet. However, Trump declared himself satisfied: “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed, as of about four hours ago,” i.e. when the meeting started. From the US, Hillary Clinton tweeted a question for Trump: “Do you know which team you play for?” After the disastrous joint press conference, she tweeted, “Well, now we know.”
There had been no well-defined agenda for the Helsinki summit, although the Russians had made a list of issues to be addressed: Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, terrorism. An important point was nuclear proliferation, since the 2010 New Start treaty expires in 2021 (although it can be extended for another five years), setting out a maximum limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads apiece for the two countries, which “have 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons,” as Trump himself said, underlining that this is “not a good thing.”
Regarding the future of Syria, the US president’s ideas don’t seem to go any further than “help Israel,” while Putin, who holds the cards on this issue and has a clear plan, believes that “the crucial thing” is the issue of the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Trump’s simple-minded view on Iran was also not to Putin’s liking: for the US president, the only objective is to fight the Tehran regime and its “campaign of violence,” while the Russian leader stressed that there is already a treaty on the Iranian nuclear issue, which led to Iran becoming “the most controlled country in the world.” Trump was easily dismissive of the Iran issue.
These days, he seems to be on an offensive against his number one “foe,” in Trump’s words: the European Union. On Sunday, the US rejected the European Union’s requests for exemptions from the sanctions on Iran for European companies, with a view to ensuring their ability to trade with Iran. An official letter to Brussels signed by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo (who was also in Helsinki), states that the United States want to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, and that the only possible exemptions will cover companies whose activity brings benefits to US security.
Trump and Putin said nothing in the joint conference about Europe, but both are pursuing the same objective: to divide and weaken the European Union, a thorn in the side of both, politically and in terms of trade. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, had a message for the two presidents in Helsinki: to be careful not to cause “global chaos.” For Tusk, Trump’s statement that the EU is one of the United States’ biggest “foes” (named before Russia or China—a statement made by the US president before he met with Putin) is nothing but “fake news.”
In Trump’s opinion, the media have not understood anything, and “covered” the NATO summit “inaccurately,” which actually made the Alliance “strong and rich again.” But someone who just recently had to deal with the consequences of Trump’s anger against Europe was Theresa May, who did not get any commitment on a future bilateral trade agreement between London and Washington during Trump’s weekend visit, but only the Trumpian advice to “sue the EU” instead of negotiating Brexit.
On the issue of the export of Russian gas to Europe, on account of which Trump singled out Germany for harsh criticism, in Helsinki the US president limited himself to complimenting Putin for being “a great competitor” in this field.
The Trump-Putin meeting gave rise to numerous protests on the streets of Helsinki: in defense of democracy, against Trump and his attacks on human rights, including the right to abortion in the US, and against Putin the autocrat, who arrested the four members of Pussy Riot (three women and one man) who managed to invade the pitch for a few seconds during the World Cup final between France and Croatia. There were protests even in the press room, where a journalist from The Nation was forcibly removed after he held up a sign calling for nuclear disarmament.