What Did Putin Get From Helsinki Summit?

By Jill Dougherty

Jill Dougherty is an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union.  She spent 30 years with CNN as Foreign Affairs Correspondent, U.S. Affairs Editor for CNN International; Managing Editor of CNN International Asia/Pacific and CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief and Correspondent and CNN White House Correspondent, covering the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The Cipher Brief spoke with Jill Dougherty, Global Fellow at The Wilson Center and CNN’s former Moscow Bureau Chief, about what Putin will be able to take away from this summit.

The Cipher Brief:  Tell me a little bit about how this summit is being reported on in Russia?

Dougherty:  There’s not a great expectation of some giant agreement by both sides, it’s really, I think that the Russians are happy that its happening period because for President Putin, this is the sign – meeting with the President of the United States – that they are not isolated.  That’s one thing that Russia continues and it’s safe to say that the West, especially the United States ‘the deep state’ is trying to isolate Russia, make it feel like a pariah and this is crucial that they are on the world stage, that they are an active participant and I’ve seen so many articles and reports say none of the problems in the world, no international issues can be decided without Russia, they are a crucial part of the world and so just the mere fact that this is happening, I would say it’s really positive for Russia in their eyes.

The Cipher Brief:  How is President Putin doing in terms of popular support in his own country?

Dougherty:  He continues to have quite high ratings, they are usually about 80%, of course, that’s official, so you can knock off some points, but there is no question that in general, the President is quite popular and I think his role on the world stage is extremely important, because to the Russian people, it makes President Putin look like an important leader.  I have noticed that there has been kind of a tone of reporting among a number of Russian media outlets,  controlled or influenced by the government of kind of disparaging President Trump, that the Germans think he is unpredictable, the Iranians think that he is totally unpredictable and dangerous, so there is a little bit of trolling and undermining of Trump, and leaving President Putin as the adult in the room who is very rationale, sober and who has the best interests of world peace in mind.

The Cipher Brief:  Are the statements out of the U.S., like the statements by Dan Coats and news of the indictments here – are they reported on the same way in the Russian media?

Dougherty:  I call it the responsible Russian media are reporting them, but it’s pretty factual, there is not much interpretation and it’s the usual thing that it’s absolutely ridiculous, we never could have done that’.  I haven’t seen any reports that really got into the nitty gritty of those indictments, the enormous detail, the fact that it was military intelligence, they’re not really parsing it in the way that the American media are, it’s much more ‘here we go again, they’re accusing us, we didn’t do it, let’s go on to something else.’

The Cipher Brief:  What would you guess Jill, would be the thing that Russians are hopeful for out of this summit?

Dougherty:  Dream-o-vision for Russia would be that Putin and Trump see eye to eye on the world.  The world, according to Vladimir Putin which is that Russia has a right to protect itself, and ‘NATO is an obsolete, Cold War institution’ and the more that President Putin can convince President Trump of his view of the world, I think that is really important because there is some similarity of their views of the world.  Trump himself has said that NATO is obsolete, so if Putin can induce Trump to agree with him on kind of how the world should work, that would be extremely good, now beyond that, of course they would love to have sanctions ended  but that’s pretty unrealistic, because it’s not just President Trump who decides that, its Congress, they know it’s a very fraught political situation right now with these indictments, the President kind of dismisses them.  I think they would like some sort of view on Syria that the U.S. butts out.  I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to have some kind of tit for tat agreement, linking Syria and Ukraine, I don’t believe in other words that you’re going to get any agreements concrete at this summit, it’s just impossible.  The best for both sides would be to instruct the people below the Presidents to begin talking realistically about the issues that really do have to be talked about; Syria, Ukraine and mostly nuclear issues, the new START agreements and IMF.

The Cipher Brief:  Given that you’ve studied Russia for a number of years, as both a journalist and academic, what are you going to be closely paying attention to?

Dougherty:  I’m going to pay a lot of attention to the body language of the Presidents and I think that news conference afterwards will be very, very interesting, because I don’t necessarily trust that we will hear a lot from the meeting, as it is one-on-one, no notetakers, etc.  It’s going to be very hard to judge what they talked about, but when you see the two Presidents next to each other, that, to me, will be the most fascinating.

Remember when Trump brushed the lint of Macron’s suit?  That kind of ‘who’s stronger, who is smarter, can we be friends’ gesture?  You know, Putin is not anybody’s friend, so the thought that you could do that, is ridiculous.  I’ve seen this guy in action many times. He is extremely good at drawing out the other guy and then playing a role, playing to the needs and demands of the other person in the room.  And he can play any role, he can be friendly, he can mean, he can be all sorts of things in order to get what he wants and what he wants is agreement from the other guy, so that I think the news conference will be fascinating.