For all the delight in the Kremlin at the successful outcome of President Vladimir Putin’s summit with Donald Trump, there’s also a sober realization that their budding friendship may be undone by snowballing allegations that Russia helped elect the U.S. leader.
The political backlash in Washington over Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki meeting — not only among Democrats and long-time Republican critics such as Senator John McCain, but also from allies such as House Speaker Paul Ryan — is seen in Moscow as a clear sign of the obstacles facing the rapprochement between Russia and the U.S.
Trump’s public siding with Putin against the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election campaign, and the Kremlin leader’s declaration that he wanted his U.S. counterpart to win, may have sealed a bond between them. But it intensified suspicions among Trump’s critics about reasons for his refusal to criticize Russia, even as U.S. prosecutors present mounting evidence of Russian meddling.
Amid back-slapping among Russian officials over a summit described by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as “better than super,” hopes it will lead to improved ties are slender at best. Failure risks leaving Putin in the cold diplomatically with no prospect of ending sanctions or easing tensions with the U.S.
“Will this really happen or not? We don’t know,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Everything around the election meddling issue provokes fury in the U.S.”
The first bilateral summit between Trump and Putin had been touted by the Kremlin as an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough after steadily worsening tensions with the U.S. over the claims of election dirty tricks as well as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Expectations in Russia were damped three days before the meeting when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly stealing and disseminating emails from Democratic groups by hacking into computers. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the indictments baseless and said they were timed to poison the mood ahead of the summit.
Trump’s decision to repeat his doubts over Russian interference in the election while standing next to Putin at a press conference may have been a mistake, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. “The question is whether Trump did the right thing. There’s a view that he didn’t deal very well tactically with this issue,” he said.
Putin’s open endorsement of Trump, by stating for the first time that he’d wanted the wealthy property developer to become president because of his campaign pledges to repair ties with Russia, was probably also ill-advised, according to Kortunov.
“We made a good start,” Putin said of his discussions with Trump in a combative interview with Fox News recorded after the summit. He brushed aside a question on the claims of election interference as “your internal political games,” and said: “I am absolutely not interested in this.”
In Washington, though, anger was rising. House Speaker Ryan said there’s “no question” that Russia interfered in the U.S. election. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” he said. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Russia’s strategy is to bet all its cards on Trump, according to Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian upper house of parliament “Two strong politicians met, who were not afraid to say what they think,” he said.
Despite the leaders’ pledges of cooperation, they may fail because of near-unanimous hostility toward Russia in the U.S. political establishment, said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow.
“The tone will improve because Trump says so, but on substance little progress is possible,” Frolov said. “Meddling and cyber are again going to be a disaster for Trump.”
In a reminder of the difficulties ahead, U.S. authorities on Monday charged a Russian woman with trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association to establish a back-channel of communication with American politicians during the last election cycle.
The timing of the announcement just hours after the summit, and three days after the charges were unsealed against the 12 Russian agents, raises suspicions of a campaign to sabotage Trump’s outreach to Putin, said Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council.
“Is the U.S. — government officials and Congress — ready to enter into some kind of dialogue?,” he said. “We know Trump’s position, but Trump doesn’t always decide things.”
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