The July 16 Helsinki summit of America’s Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will occur at a time when the president is understandably ecstatic at how many of his fondest diplomatic objectives and dreams have already come true.
Unfortunately, the president we are talking about here is Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In recent years, Putin (who mastered his craft in the KGB) has plotted, schemed, cyber-burgled and weaponized social media in his multi-pronged battle to generate disinformation, promote discord, foment division, warp America’s elections and shatter Americans’ confidence in their own democracy. Putin also hoped to somehow, over time, create enough dissention to maybe crack (but surely not shatter) America’s seemingly rock-solid relationships within the G-7, the European Union and NATO.
Unbelievably, all that is already happening. Undoubtedly, Putin must be thrilled by his swift success - and the fact that things couldn’t have gone better if he had been manipulating an unwitting but de-facto agent. Trump has been saying and doing things that play right into Putin’s master plan, code name: MRGA (Make Russia Great Again).
I’ve long been convinced Putin started with a very different master plan - but abruptly scrapped it and changed directions in a spur-of-the-moment, impulsive/compulsive reflex reaction. Back in 2014, I believe Russia’s leader was implementing a strategy I’m calling Putin’s Sochi Two-Step.
Step One: With Russia’s suffering economy being largely overlooked by the growing global economy, Putin brought the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi. He hoped Russia could show the world its new best face - as an excellent host and reliable partner. It worked.
Step Two: Right after the Olympics, Russia was set to host - also in Sochi - an economic summit of the then G-8 nations, where Putin hoped to close the deal by boosting Russia’s standing as a trusted trade partner.
But suddenly Ukraine spurned Moscow and aligned its trade future with Europe and America - and Putin exploded. Here we must understand that Putin’s mindset was shaped by a life-changing event: The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin, age 33, was trapped in the KGB’s East Berlin office in Dresden; a mob threatened to storm the building. He burned documents and bluffed the mob by warning that he had many armed troops inside. The shame of that day, and the Soviet Union’s collapse, burns within him still. So Ukraine spurning Mother Russia was intolerable. Putin moved to pay back Kiev militarily - and that shattered his Sochi summit plan. The G-8 expelled Russia. And Putin has schemed to divide the EU-US alliances ever since.
Enter Trump and his strange attraction to Putin and Russia. When Trump’s empire was struggling, Putin’s oligarchs invested massively in Trump’s real estate, at inflated prices. Trump has been forever grateful.
Now Trump sees no evil in Putin’s assault on America’s democracy - and sees none of the evidence U.S. intelligence agencies wave under his nose. Also: Trump has insulted Canada, Mexico, Germany, France and other U.S. trade partners; he has triggered a disastrous global trade war by imposing hardline tariffs.
We’ve never seen the hilarity and hi-fiving inside the Kremlin. Never seen Putin’s lips or hands moving. But we see him grin like a proud puppeteer as Trump talks and tweets. As in the predawn darkness of 4:25 a.m. Thursday, when - just before these like-minded adversaries announced their Helsinki summit - Trump mind-bogglingly tweeted:
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!”
This will be the second summit for Trump and Putin. After their July 2017 private meeting at an economic conference in Hamburg, one of my fellow pundits wrote in London’s Telegraph:
“Trump got to experience Putin looking him in the eyes and lying, denying Russian interference in the election. . It is . a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.
“For Trump, it should be a highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership to watch Putin lie to him. And it should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control or the Middle East: negotiate with Russia at your peril.”
That optimistic 2017 insight was written by John Bolton, who is now Trump’s national security adviser - and who just met with Putin in Moscow to arrange next month’s summit. Frankly, we don’t know what to expect in Helsinki. Details are being worked out - including who will be bring the fire-bell.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.