MOSCOW – For President Donald Trump, a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin risks a political backlash at home and abroad. For Putin, however, the fact the summit is even happening already is a big geopolitical win.
Despite Russia’s semipariah status among some Americans and U.S. allies, the Kremlin has long been trying to arrange a summit, betting that Putin and Trump will get on well and stop a sharp downwards spiral in bilateral ties.
While nobody on either side expects big breakthroughs, including on U.S. sanctions, the summit is seen by Moscow as U.S. recognition of Russia’s status as a great power and an overdue U.S. realization that its interests must be taken into account.
“The fact that a Putin-Trump meeting will happen says only one thing: that for all its hysteria, the United States is not able to isolate or ignore Russia,” said Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian senator from the ruling United Russia party.
“It took a long time for Washington to get that idea, but it got there in the end.”
Western grievances over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its backing of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad haven’t gone away.
Other accusations, denied by Moscow, include that it meddled in U.S. and European politics, supplied the weapon that shot down a passenger plane in 2014 over Ukraine and tried to kill a former Russian spy in Britain with a nerve agent.
Kremlin critics at home and abroad see Trump’s decision to grant Putin a summit against that backdrop as conferring international legitimacy and status on Putin, something they say he doesn’t deserve given the lack of meaningful change in Russia’s policies internationally.
But in Russia, where the political system is obsessed with hierarchy, status and displays of raw power, Putin has “already got his victory,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a foreign policy think-tank close to the Foreign Ministry.
“It allows him to make his point that Russia is not isolated, that Russia is a great power, and to some extent can even claim an equal status with the United States, at least in the security field,” said Kortunov.
Expectations are high in Russia that Putin, with more than 18 years of global experience, will have the edge on Trump, who had not held elected office before he was inaugurated last year. The two men have met twice before at other events and spoken by phone at least eight times.
Vitaly Tretyakov, a political author, described Trump on state TV on the day the summit was agreed as “a neophyte in world politics” to whom Putin could explain Russian thinking and why Russia was right to annex Crimea.
Sergei Mironov, a senior lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, said in another political talk show that Putin would definitely have the upper hand in Helsinki.
“Vladimir Putin will give a real master class to the inexperienced politician Donald Trump,” he said.