Helsinki set the global stage for diplomatic theater, but Putin ran the show.
HELSINKI—After weeks of frantic preparations and buildup, the world’s spotlight has come to Finland and gone, leaving behind controversy and confusion. U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flashy one-day meeting on Monday brought an international frenzy to the normally calm Finnish capital, culminating in a bizarre press conference that has left experts and commentators shell-shocked and declaring a symbolic victory for Russia. It was a disorienting and surreal conclusion to a diplomatic event that emphasized showmanship over substance from the beginning.
The tone for what was to come was set early in the day on Monday. Before meeting with Putin, Trump tweeted that the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations was the fault of “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!,” referring to Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in American politics. Obviously enthused, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted “We agree,” in response. Next, in a common power move used by the Russian president, Putin landed in Helsinki one hour late and zipped off the tarmac in his newly made Russian limousine as Trump waited with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the presidential palace and the TV cameras followed his motorcade through a cordoned-off Helsinki. Later, Putin emerged clearly satisfied after a roughly two-hour-long unrecorded one-on-one meeting with Trump and working lunch. Speaking to a packed room of attentive reporters, the two leaders failed to offer any concrete outcomes from their meeting, despite weeks of speculation over potential deals on Syria, Ukraine, and nuclear weapons. Still, Trump was eager to play up the spectacle of the event one last time. “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” he said early in the press conference before taking a dramatic pause. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”
During the press conference, it was clear that Putin was in charge. Not only did he deny any Russian interference in U.S. politics, he confidently twisted the truth and trolled the American press corps in his answers. Putin, who has been essentially running Russia for 18 years, has managed to silence and intimidate the Russian press with methods ranging from commercial to violent, and next to him Trump’s own repeated cries of “fake news” against critical coverage looked almost quaint. It was a press conference hosted by a man who has eviscerated press freedom at home and one who, if his rhetoric is any indication, seems to want to but can’t quite manage it. And for 45 minutes they both had to deal with the media—and the media with them.
At one point, Putin denied having compromising information on Trump, but then joked that as a former intelligence officer, he knows “how dossiers are made up.” Later, when pressed about the 12 Russian military intelligence officers recently indicted for election interference, Putin offered to allow Mueller’s team to come to Moscow and “be present at the questioning” of the officers. Trump, meanwhile, seemed to accept Putin’s answers and used his speaking time to once again go after his domestic opponents. But those lines were well worn by that point; the main thing that was different was the context. It was one thing, perhaps—and not necessarily a good one—for Trump to condemn opponents, both real and perceived, at home. It was also disturbing, yet almost routine, that Trump would cast doubt on the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had intervened in U.S. elections to help Trump. That was, after all, a conclusion implicating Trump’s own legitimacy. But it was quite another thing for him to do all this on foreign soil, shoulder to shoulder with one of the world’s foremost authoritarians, who the U.S. intelligence community assesses to have successfully attacked American democracy.
The bizarre dynamic, experts warn, is likely to leave Putin emboldened after the meeting in Helsinki. “What generates stability is that your adversary knows that doing anything stupid will be met with a costly response,” Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Moscow, told me. “So to the extent that they’re given a pass, you’re encouraging them to do it again and that is increasing instability.”
Inside the gold-and-white ballroom of the Finnish presidential palace, journalists sat in both awe and puzzlement at what was unfolding in front of us. Putin was tough, focused, and at times even a little charming. Trump, meanwhile, seemed defiant and aloof, especially when he caused a few chuckles in the back of the room as he awkwardly threw a soccer ball to First Lady Melania Trump from the podium—a World Cup–related gift to him from the Russian president. And when Trump said the now-infamous phrase that “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered in the U.S. election, many reporters in the room looked at each other in near-disbelief, uncertain he could really have said that. Within a day, Trump was on damage control, insisting that it was all the fault of a mangled double negative, and he had meant to say he couldn’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia.
But by then much of the political damage had been done. The simultaneous gravity and absurdity of the press conference was a fitting climax to an event that was designed to signal that the world was about to change. For these were two men who have already been changing it, and absurd theatrics like these almost serve to obscure the weight of the results.
It’s perhaps fitting that a meeting between an image-obsessed ex-spy and a former reality-TV star was defined by pageantry and power plays. Trump, according to the Associated Press, initially worried that Helsinki was not a grand enough backdrop and instead requested to host Putin at the White House for his long sought-after summit. But after being told by aides about the Finnish capital’s storied history in hosting summits between Washington and Moscow, Trump embraced Helsinki as the location of his foray into U.S.-Russia diplomacy. “We know that Trump wanted to come here and say that two great men shook hands and made history,” Laura Saarikoski, the U.S. correspondent for Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, told me. “From the beginning, this summit has been a balancing act between being a good host and not wanting the two men here. Finns didn’t want Helsinki to be lumped in with Yalta and Munich,” she said, referring to historic summits in Europe that saw large powers decide the fate of smaller countries.
Those dark predictions didn’t materialize on Monday, but the announcement in late June that Putin and Trump—two of the world’s most polarizing and unpopular men—would be visiting sparked a series of rare outbursts of dissent and alarm in the “happiest country in the world.” Prior to Trump and Putin’s arrival, thousands of protestors took to the streets of the normally orderly Nordic capital to protest the two presidents’ policies. Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, put up a series of ads at bus stops and billboards across the city addressed to each leader in English and Russian saying, “Mr. President, welcome to the land of free press.” Concerns about press freedom were vindicated when Trump tweeted that the media were “the enemy of the people” before Air Force One landed in Helsinki on Sunday.
Finland, of course, had its own agenda in agreeing to partake in the spectacle. Helsinki was eager to earn political goodwill in hosting the high-profile event and to help foster dialogue between two nuclear-armed adversaries. But the country also saw an opportunity to showcase itself to the world and—more specifically—to the thousands of foreign journalists that descended on the city in the days before the summit. The Finnish government opened up Finlandia Hall, the former site of previous Cold War–era summits, as a media center, complete with buffet meals, a gin-and-tonic bar in the evening, and an outdoor sauna. Elsewhere, Allas Sea Pool—a popular destination for tourists to swim and try a Finnish sauna— was transformed into the site for top American TV networks like Fox and CNN, who displayed background shots of sunbathing Finns enthusiastically enjoying the country’s short summer.
The hosting duties were a massive undertaking and Finnish officials were left juggling the competing requests of the White House and the Kremlin, while trying to organize the loosely structured meeting. Still, it appears that it was a successful summit at least for Finland. Both Putin and Trump took time to praise the country in their comments at the press conference, something that Iltalehti, one of Finland’s most-read newspapers, took to heart Tuesday morning as its front page read: “TRUMP PRAISES FINLAND.”
But as the Trump-Putin show has concluded in Helsinki and the dizzying days of the global media storm begin to fade, the main questions turn back to the fallout from the unusual diplomatic episode. Trump’s performance has come under fire across the political spectrum in the United States, and despite the new era of U.S.-Russia relations that he and Putin announced together in Finland, growing domestic backlash could make that increasingly difficult. Putin didn’t get the concessions that some observers predicted ahead of the summit, but by taking part in Trump’s spectacle on Monday, it’s hard to argue that Russia didn’t come out ahead.
“This is no reset. If anything it’s going to be harder to have a working U.S.-Russia relationship now,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. “But there’s no denying this was a victory for Putin.”