'Stars are aligning' for Putin before Trump summit — indictments notwithstanding
'I'm sure Putin is thrilled,' expert says after Justice Department indicts 12 Russians for election hacking
Talk about timing.
With only three days to go before the U.S.-Russia presidential summit, the stunning indictments Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officers — charged with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — could easily have been enough to make the U.S. cancel it.
In any past U.S. presidency, that might have been the case. Not so for Trump, say Eurasia scholars and former diplomats familiar with Russian propaganda efforts.
The Kremlin, rushing out a statement Friday, slammed the announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice as an attempt to "spoil" the atmosphere ahead of President Donald Trump's face-to-face with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
It needn't have worried.
Following chaotic stops in Brussels and the U.K., where Trump's criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and British Prime Minister Theresa May seemed to weaken a historic alliance, experts say the chief beneficiary of the turmoil is Putin.
"I'm sure Putin is thrilled. And [the indictments] won't make a difference," said Alexandra Vacroux, director of Harvard University's Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
"I think any other American president would cancel the summit and say, 'No — with this evidence, it's clear they did do something; and unless I have guarantees this will never happen again, we won't meet.'"
Instead, Trump, who was briefed by his Justice Department about the indictments, will press ahead with Monday's meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
Once in Finland, he will have the opportunity to confront Putin on Russia's annexation of Crimea; to debate sanctions relief for Russia; to broker a New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) treaty expiring in 2021 between the nations to commit to mutual nuclear arms reduction; and to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO.
In the U.K. on Friday, Trump told reporters he will "absolutely ask" Putin in person about Russian meddling as well. But Trump has also previously said he takes Putin at his word, believing his claim that the Kremlin played no role in hacking into the 2016 election.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that the indictments "had nothing to do with the Trump administration."
These Russian individuals did their work during the Obama years. Why didn’t Obama do something about it? Because he thought Crooked Hillary Clinton would win, that’s why. Had nothing to do with the Trump Administration, but Fake News doesn’t want to report the truth, as usual!—@realDonaldTrump
That's in direct contradiction to Trump's own intelligence community and the Justice Department.
Friday's announcement revealed the indictments of a dozen Russians with the GRU military intelligence unit in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe. It alleged the Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee to undermine the election, and compromised the voting data of 500,000 Americans.
Chances are slim the Russian defendants will end up in U.S. court. Russia is highly unlikely to extradite them.
"For Putin, this is like the stars are aligning," given how the last week has unfolded for Trump in Europe, said Brett Bruen, who led an inter-agency task force in the Obama administration to combat Russian propaganda.
He points to Trump's thrashing of what he called "delinquent" NATO members and demands for the alliance to increase defence spending, lest the U.S. begin to roll back on its commitments.
"That diluted the standing of the most important strategic alliance for security in the world."
And when the president left the NATO meetings in Brussels for the U.K., only to criticize British Prime Minister Theresa May's handling of Brexit, Bruen said, "he diminished the stature of America's most important strategic ally in the world."
"If I was trying to write a script for how Putin could set up the summit with Trump for maximum impact on Russia's strategic objectives, I don't think I could have done a better job than what Trump has accomplished."
Experts warn that Trump has already hinted at possible concessions with Putin. He appeared reluctant last month to rule out recognizing Russia's annexation of Crimea, responding to a question about whether the U.S. would drop its longstanding opposition to the annexation by saying: "We're going to have to see."
Legitimizing it would raise alarms in Baltic states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, about possible Russian incursions.
I'm not sure what it gets the U.S., apart from extreme anxiety about what happens in that room.- Alexandra Vacroux , Harvard University
Bruen is skeptical Trump will be able to achieve much, beyond hyping that the summit materialized and that Putin gave him a symbolic gesture of goodwill. But merely bringing up the topic of Russian election meddling sounds like a "weak way of checking a box without applying pressure," he said.
"My fear is this is really our last opportunity, before we head into the congressional elections, to get Putin and his propagandists out of our electoral process. I have little confidence the president is going to grow a backbone overnight on this."
If last month's Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was any indicator, he added, there's reason to worry.
While the Trump-Kim summit was billed by the administration as a possible advancement toward denuclearization, satellite images suggest Pyongyang is continuing to develop a nuclear research site and missile facility.
Adding to the anxiety for next week's Trump-Putin sessions is that the private sitdowns will be without note-takers or advisers present: only translators.
"It does look like this meeting has the potential to get Putin quite a lot," Vacroux said. "I'm not sure what it gets the U.S., apart from extreme anxiety about what happens in that room."
As far as Russian election tampering goes, she says the U.S. is missing a concrete geopolitical "grand strategy" to halt Russia's interference in future U.S. elections, beyond "patching holes in cybersecurity."
Unless the president delivers "a serious message with serious consequences," Bruen said, he can expect the Russians to continue developing ways to undermine U.S. elections.
While Friday's indictment didn't allege any co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, "timing seems like a notable fact," observed Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York, which his presently handling the case.
"The defendants made an after-hours attempt to hack into [Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton's] emails, for the first time, on July 27, 2016," he noted. "That's the same date in which Trump said, 'Russia, if you're listening I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.'"
The new indictments are "the strongest evidence so far" of the Russian effort to tamper with the U.S. democratic system, Sandick said.
Alleged Russian cyberattacks against the DNC notwithstanding, Trump already signalled how much he wants this meeting with Putin. Despite Russia's standing as an adversary, he has arguably treated the Russian strongman more amicably than he has actual European allies in recent days.
Ahead of his flight to what turned out to be a tense NATO summit and a fraught visit to the U.K., Trump made a prediction to reporters about the sensitive meetings ahead.
"Frankly," he said, "Putin may be the easiest of them all."