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What Putin Was Really Saying in Helsinki

Trump was there to make friends. Putin had a different agenda.

While most of the commentary about Monday’s bizarre press conference in Helsinki rightly focuses on President Trump’s smirking, obsequious performance, it’s worth looking closely at Vladimir Putin’s remarks as well.

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Putin did not seem nearly as eager to please as his counterpart. While Trump declined to specifically criticize Russia for anything­—election interference, the annexation of Crimea, support for Assad, assassinations on foreign soil—Putin included in his opening remarks some pointed criticism of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. “Thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran became most controlled country in the world, it submitted to the control of IAEA,” Putin said, according to the live translation, adding that the deal “effectively ensures the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program and strengthens the non-proliferation regime.” He also suggested the U.S. should do more to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to comply with the Minsk agreement—referring to the internationally brokered deal to halt fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Trump, notably, did not mention Russian financial and military support for separatists in the region or accuse Russia of violating the agreement, as his own U.N. ambassador did just a few weeks ago. In fact, Trump did not mention Ukraine at all in his remarks.

Putin also used the platform to take aim at some of his longtime boogeymen in the West. In suggesting that U.S. and Russian law enforcement and intelligence officers should work together to investigate election interference—a ludicrous notion that Trump called an “interesting idea”—Putin also proposed that they look into the activities of Bill Browder, the U.S.-British financier and former Russia-based investor who has campaigned for harsh sanctions against Russian officials since the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison in 2009. A Russian court charged Browder with tax evasion (he dismissed the charges as baseless and politically motivated) and found him guilty in absentia, making him the subject of several Interpol notices (which Western governments have mostly ignored).

In arguing that there is a distinction between the Russian state and the Russian companies or individuals who may have interfered in the U.S. election, Putin engaged in some whataboutism by trotting out trusty old George Soros. Soros’ wealth and power, Putin said, “doesn’t make him—his position, his posture, the posture of the United States. No, it does not. It’s the same case.”

The Russian president also put out some interesting signals Monday about the future of the conflict in Syria. It’s worth noting that while Trump was traveling around Europe generating headlines in the lead-up to this summit, Putin had a quieter, but just as busy and perhaps more productive, week. The Russian president met in Moscow with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.* (In fairness to Putin, he’s a rare world leader on good terms with both those men.) He also met with French President Emmanuel Macron, in town for the World Cup final, for talks on Iran and Syria policy.

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Ahead of the Helsinki summit, there had been speculation that Putin and Trump could announce a deal that would see the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and an end to the effort to unseat President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for Russian guarantees to limit the Iranian presence near the Syrian border with Israel. It would also encourage U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces to partner with the regime. State Department and Pentagon officials, as well as National Security Adviser John Bolton, are skeptical of the deal, according to reporting by the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin.

Such a deal would be regarded as extremely favorable to both Russia and Iran, and Putin likely knows that getting Israeli buy-in is key to winning Trump’s support for it. Netanyahu seemed amenable after their recent meeting, saying he had no objection to Assad remaining in power, as long as Iranian forces and their proxies were “tens of kilometers” from the Israeli border.

Trump and Putin did not announce any new deals Monday, but it’s notable that Putin mentioned the “peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel and also to provide security of the state of Israel” in his opening remarks. Trump started talking about Israel, unprompted, in response to a question about U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Syria. Clearly, the topic came up.

Putin’s most telling answer of the press conference may have come in response to a question from a U.S. reporter about why Americans should trust Russia’s denials of interference in the election. “As to who is to be believed, who is not to be believed, you can trust no one,” Putin said. “Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America. I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation.”

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A defining feature of Putinism is the extent to which Russian officials are often upfront and open about their use of disinformation for political purposes. “Trust no one” is as good a mission statement as any.

Correction, July 16, 2018: This post originally misspelled Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s last name.