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News Analysis: Just Sitting Down With Trump, Putin Comes Out Ahead

News Analysis

Just Sitting Down With Trump, Putin Comes Out Ahead

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President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the APEC leaders’ summit meeting in Vietnam in 2017.CreditJorge Silva/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MOSCOW — When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sits down with President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday for a meeting he has long wanted, he will already have accomplished virtually everything he could reasonably hope for.

All he really needs to make his meeting with Mr. Trump a success is for it to take place without any major friction — providing a symbolic end to Western efforts to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in 2014, its meddling in the United States election in 2016 and other examples of what the United States Treasury Department has described as Russia’s “malign activity” around the world.

“If Trump says, ‘Let bygones be bygones because we have a world to run,’ that is essentially what Moscow needs from this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow.

As with any negotiation, timing is everything, and Mr. Putin has been gaining a lot of momentum lately. He will arrive in Helsinki after presiding over the final game of the World Cup soccer tournament in Moscow on Sunday, and will meet an American president who has spent the last week berating his NATO allies and undercutting his host in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May.

Even the indictment announced on Friday in Washington against 12 Russian military intelligence officers, which prompted some Democrats to demand the cancellation of the Helsinki meeting, could help Mr. Putin by playing into a conspiracy theory long embraced by both the Kremlin and the White House that the “deep state” is determined to sabotage Mr. Trump’s outreach to Russia. Right before the indictments were announced, in fact, Mr. Trump referred to the Russia investigation as a “rigged witch hunt” that “really hurts our relationship with Russia.”

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Mr. Trump with Prime Minister Theresa May in Buckinghamshire, England, on Friday. He undercut his host by criticizing her in an interview with a tabloid newspaper.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Anything that stokes divisions inside the United States, or between America and its allies, is viewed by Moscow as a victory. Deploying hackers, disinformation campaigns and support for far-right populist forces in Europe, Mr. Putin has long sought to fracture the West and upend the established geopolitical order. But Mr. Trump, who routinely attacks European leaders and has started a trade war with some of America’s closest allies, is now effectively doing the job for him.

Mr. Trump’s persistent tirades on the expense of NATO and his fury at the trade practices of the European Union, which he recently described as “possibly as bad as China, just smaller,” have startled even Russian pundits who have for years watched as Mr. Putin, like Soviet-era leaders before him, tried in vain to undermine the trans-Atlantic alliance.

“We are witnessing something surprising, something that even the Soviet Union was not able to accomplish: Divide the U.S. and Western Europe. It didn’t work then, but it seems to be working with Mr. Trump now,” Tatyana Parkhalina, president of the Russian Association for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, said on a recent talk show on state-run television.

The summit meeting offers Mr. Putin a chance to restore what he and Mr. Trump see as the natural order of world affairs, one in which traditional diplomatic alliances are not a given, smaller countries don’t really matter and big powers act in their own self interest, above all else. That order includes Russia playing a central role, instead of being treated like a pariah or a second-rate has-been.

Whatever the outcome of their talks, the Russian president, thanks to the Kremlin’s firm grip on all of Russia’s national television channels, will be able to present his meeting with Mr. Trump as proof that his country has come in from the cold and that, as Mr. Trump suggested last month, Russia should be readmitted to the Group of 7 club of industrialized democracies.

Mr. Trump cannot unilaterally invite Mr. Putin back into the club. Russia was ejected from it after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. But by meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki, Mr. Trump sends a message that, as the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said after meeting Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1984, “we can do business together.”

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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced indictments on Friday against 12 Russian military officers who are accused of conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.CreditT.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Mr. Putin is a firm believer that real leaders do not dither. They make deals, unencumbered by caviling aides and persnickety diplomats, as he and Mr. Trump will be when they meet in Helsinki. Only translators will be present.

Yet, while Mr. Putin might dream of a repeat of Yalta, the 1945 conference at which Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill carved up the world into spheres of influence, Russian officials have made clear that they do not expect a grand bargain to come out of Helsinki.

Mindful of the constraints on Mr. Trump, they have been playing down the prospect of any startling breakthroughs. They well know that, no matter what Mr. Trump agrees to with Mr. Putin, he still has to get it past an American establishment that remains deeply suspicious of Russia.

“We are well aware of the extent to which the American establishment is being held hostage to stereotypes and is under the heaviest domestic anti-Russian pressure,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said on Tuesday. He was responding to remarks by a Republican senator, John Kennedy, that “you can’t trust Putin” and that dealing with the Russian authorities was “like dealing with the mafia.”

Mr. Trump has said that Mr. Putin — who has seen three previous American presidents come and go and frustrated each one’s early hopes of a new dawn in relations — “may be the easiest” leader to deal with. But that is a minority view in Russia as well as in the United States.

“Vladimir Putin will give a real master class to this inexperienced politician,” predicted Sergei Mironov, the leader of A Just Russia, a nominally opposition political party that invariably echoes the Kremlin’s line. Mr. Mironov told a Sunday talk show on state-run television that the Russian president “will show the difference between Twitter politics and real politics.”

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Mr. Putin, center, in Moscow last month before a children’s soccer match.CreditAlexander Safonov/Associated Press

Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who was ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama and an architect of one of those ill-fated “resets” with Moscow, said Mr. Trump was unlikely to find Mr. Putin an easy leader to deal with unless he “delivers concessions without asking for anything in return.”

Unlike President Trump, who has to contend with public opinion and the checks and balances of a democracy, Mr. Putin largely has a free hand, though he has stoked so much anti-Western feeling in Russia that he cannot afford to make grand concessions. But that is not something he wants to do anyway.

Stephen Sestanovich, who served in the State Department under President Bill Clinton, said leaders should talk, and he disagreed with critics of Mr. Trump who say that he should avoid Mr. Putin. But he cautioned that Mr. Trump could not afford to be too chummy with the Russian leader, lest he strengthen opposition to his foreign policy in Congress and in Europe.

“He has to handle it right or else his Helsinki love fest could just blow up,” Mr. Sestanovich said.

That could happen, for example, if Mr. Trump repeats in Helsinki his performance in May in Singapore, where he met North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, praised him and then pledged to end joint American military exercises with South Korea’s military — a concession that Pyongyang had been demanding for years.

Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Moscow who is now director for foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, a research group in London, said he would normally cheer any chance for leaders to sit down and hash out their problems.

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A screen at a World Cup fan zone showing Mr. Putin giving a speech before the opening match of the World Cup, which Russia is hosting.CreditMaxim Shipenkov/Epa-Efe, via Rex, via Shutterstock, via Maxim Shipenkov, via Epa-Efe, via Rex, via Shutterstock

But, he added, “Putin versus Trump is not an equal contest” because of the Russian leader’s vastly superior knowledge of policy detail, his mastery of geopolitics and his past as a KGB officer schooled in the arts of persuasion, flattery and subterfuge.

“If he can get Trump to come out and say the sort of things he said after meeting with Kim Jong-un, that is a big win for Putin.” Mr. Bond said. “If he can get him to say that all the problems between Russia and America have been cooked up by the Ukrainians and America’s deep state, or anything that leads in that direction, it will be a success for Putin,” he added.

Mr. Bond predicted that Mr. Putin, well aware of what buttons to push with Mr. Trump, would urge the American leader to halt the United States’ participation in Trident Juncture, one of NATO’s largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War, which the Kremlin sees as a provocation.

The possibility that Mr. Putin, after months of frustration at Mr. Trump’s inability to deliver on his repeated pledges to “get along with Russia,” will have something to celebrate in Helsinki has led to an abrupt dialing down of the often venomous anti-American diatribes by Russia’s state-controlled news outlets.

Aleksei A. Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station that has been allowed to maintain an independent editorial line, said that in eagerness to avoid offending Mr. Trump, the state news media, under orders from the Kremlin, had muted its frequent portrayal of the American president as a hapless captive of the “deep state,” the supposed cabal of hidden power-brokers that the Kremlin has long blamed for all its problems with the United States.

Presenting Mr. Trump as a helpless prisoner of more powerful forces runs counter to the American leader’s macho self-image, Mr. Venediktov said, so it had to be toned down to allow Mr. Trump to “display his manly qualities in Helsinki.”

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Russian dolls depicting Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump at a market in Moscow on Friday.CreditMaxim Zmeyev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But no matter how well Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin may bond over their shared approach to leadership, few expect them to produce many concrete results beyond a vaguely worded statement pledging to work together and to refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

Mr. Putin cannot expect any lifting of sanctions, which would require approval by Congress, or any swift American recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. They will also discuss Syria, particularly Iran’s presence there; arms control; and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, provoked in 2014 by Russia’s dispatch of arms and soldiers to support separatist rebels.

Ivan Kurilla, an expert on Russian-American relations at the European University at St. Petersburg, said that perhaps the most Mr. Putin could realistically expect from Mr. Trump was an agreement that their two countries would reopen consulates closed last year and that some of the Russian and American diplomats caught up in rounds of tit-for-tat expulsions would return to their posts.

Mr. Venediktov, the editor of Ekho Moskvy, said that Russia’s political elite blamed Mr. Trump’s failure to reach out to Mr. Putin earlier on America’s “deep state.” But he added that they had never entirely lost faith that the American president would one day come through and cut a deal.

“Russia is not disappointed with Trump, but disappointed that the American system does not give the same powers to the president as the Russian system does,” Mr. Venediktov said.

Putting relations on better footing, said Mr. Kurilla, the St. Petersburg scholar, is important for Mr. Putin but more so for Mr. Trump, who needs a more benign image of Russia to help stop his political opponents from using Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 American election to undermine his own legitimacy.

“He wants to bring home a message that Russia is not America’s enemy, not a diabolical power,” just as President Ronald Reagan did after his meetings in the 1980s with Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Kurilla said. “But he has miscalculated, because Putin is not like Gorbachev.”

Andrew Higgins reported from Moscow, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Lincoln Pigman contributed reporting from Moscow.

A version of this article appears in print on of the New York edition with the headline: Seat at Table Gives Putin Upper Hand. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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