Russia's Trump takeaway: Putin basks in post-summit glow

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a soccer ball to U.S. President Donald Trump, left,...
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a soccer ball to U.S. President Donald Trump, left, during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) (KY3)
Published: Jul. 17, 2018 at 5:57 PM CDT
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While Donald Trump came home to criticism from left and right after his first summit with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president came home to universal praise.

Instead of being portrayed as a duel on the world stage, the summit was viewed in Russia as a meeting of two mighty men who discussed global problems — and then had to face down a crowd of pesky journalists.

Back in Moscow, Russian authorities quickly jumped to act on Putin's overtures.

The Russian military offered Tuesday to boost military cooperation with the U.S. in Syria after Putin claimed the two leaders found common ground in solutions for a post-war Syria.

And Russian prosecutors pushed to question U.S. intelligence agents and a former ambassador to Moscow in their investigation of an influential Putin foe.

Yet most Russians aren't saying Putin vanquished Trump. Instead they're sympathizing with a U.S. president on whom they've pinned hopes for improved relations, portraying him as a victim of irrational domestic critics and aggressive journalists.

With U.S.-Russia tensions exceptionally high, the Kremlin set low expectations for the summit.

"Nobody in Moscow who is realistic had any illusions that this one meeting can produce any breakthroughs," said Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The hope was at least we can start talking to each other."

And in that, Putin got what he went for. Gabuev said Putin ably won over his domestic audiences, notably by pushing back at accusations of Russian election meddling with his own accusations against the U.S.

Russians welcomed Putin's offer to allow the FBI to interrogate Russian military intelligence officials accused of hacking the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And they especially welcomed Putin's insistence on a tit -for-tat deal aimed at discrediting U.S. sanctions against rich and powerful Russians.

"If there's suspicion in America in relation to employees of our intelligence bodies, then let (U.S. investigators) come here," said ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky. "Come here, meet, discuss, and all questions will be decided in the right way."

He dismissed the latest indictment by special investigator Robert Mueller — which includes detailed accusations and description of alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic Party — as "just gossip."

Observers in Moscow remain cautious about what all this means for the long term.

"Those who opposed the meeting will try to devalue the agreements made," said Vladimir Olenchenko of Russia's Institute of Global Economics and International Relations. "We hope that Trump will have enough political will and patience to overcome the resistance and continue dialogue with Russia."

But the Kremlin didn't expect one meeting to bring an end to Western sanctions and a pullback of NATO forces deployed near Russia's borders. Putin is hoping the summit took a first step toward normalizing relations — and most importantly, persuading the U.S. to acknowledge Moscow's influence over its former Soviet neighbors and recognize Russia as a global player whose interests must be taken into account.

Analyst Pavel Felgengauer said Putin "won" the summit, but at the possible cost of stability in Russia's neighborhood and the Middle East. He said the two men appeared to open the way for a grand bargain that would allow the U.S. to hike up pressure on Iran in exchange for allowing Russia to increase its sway over Ukraine.

"I don't believe in their two hours of talks in Helsinki the two presidents spoke about the election meddling longer than 5 minutes," he said. "It's not something that's really of interest to any of them. ... They were discussing things they both have real interest in."

Whatever the two presidents discussed behind closed doors, Muscovites weary of years of U.S.-Russian hostility appeared eager to see signs of improvement after this week's summit.

"They said that the Cold War is over. It's getting warmer," said Ludmila Georgeva, smiling and squinting against the summer sun in a shopping area near Red Square. "So we hope that our generation will see better times. And our grandchildren, even better."


Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed.


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