By Christian Lowe
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s political and media establishment heralded talks between the Russian and U.S. leaders in Helsinki as a victory for Vladimir Putin in breaking down Western resolve to treat Russia as a pariah.
“The West’s attempts to isolate Russia failed,” read the headline on a report on Monday’s summit meeting in state-run newspaper Rossiisskaya Gazeta.
The praise from Russia’s elite for Putin’s performance at the summit contrasted sharply with the reaction in Washington where U.S. President Donald Trump’s own Republican party accused him of failing to stand up to Putin.
In Moscow, there was a recognition that the summit did not produce any breakthroughs on issues such as Syria, Ukraine or arms control. The Kremlin, in the run-up to the summit, had played down expectations of major progress.
Instead, the focus was on the symbolism of the leader of the world’s biggest superpower sitting down one-on-one with Putin after four years of international isolation triggered by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
“It’s funny to recall the nonsense from Obama et al about Russia being a weak ‘regional power’,” Alexey Pushkov, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, referring to former U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The attention of the whole world is focused today on Helsinki and it’s crystal clear to everyone: the fate of the world is being decided between Russia and the United States, the leaders of the two major powers of our planet are meeting,” Pushkov said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Asked by reporters in Helsinki how the talks had gone, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Magnificent… Better than super.”
The opportunity for Putin to present himself as an equal to the U.S. president was a major objective for the Kremlin as it prepared for the summit, according to people close to the Russian foreign policy establishment.
Putin has based a large part of his domestic appeal – both to ordinary people and the elites – on a narrative about restoring the international heft that Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
A post-summit news conference in Helsinki with Trump and Putin was “everything the Kremlin realistically could have hoped for,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia scholar at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
“Putin gets to look like the urbane grown-up, and presents Russia as peer power to USA,” Galeotti wrote on Twitter.
Russia’s rouble currency was up 0.4 percent against the dollar in Monday trading. Market analysts said the fact the summit happened was a positive for Russian assets, offsetting the negative effect from a drop in oil prices.
Kremlin officials, speaking in private before the summit, acknowledged that it has been difficult to figure out how best to deal with a U.S. leader who is mercurial and flouts political etiquette.
Putin aides have voiced frustration too that their attempts to repair U.S-Russia relations were being blocked by Trump’s opponents in the United States. Trump’s domestic critics allege his 2016 election campaign colluded with Russia, something both Trump and Russia deny.
In a new departure, Putin waded directly into that U.S. domestic debate. Standing alongside Trump in Helsinki, Putin said he had evidence that $400 million dollars in unlawfully acquired cash may have been funneled to the election campaign of Trump’s defeated opponent Hillary Clinton.
“Having been twinned with Donald Trump by the media for a long time, Putin has now clearly decided to cast his lot with him,” said Dmitry Trenin, a former colonel in the Russian army who is now director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.
On the evidence of their news conference in Helsinki, Trenin wrote on Twitter, Putin is “now vocally supporting his U.S. counterpart against his domestic foes.”
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in HELSINKI, Editing by William Maclean)