On July 16, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are set to meet up in Helsinki, Finland, sending much of the rest of the planet into either terrified bemusement, embarrassed squirms, or worse.
The Russians, of course, will put on their best face and try to flatter and bedazzle this most distractible of Commanders-in-Chief into making the kind of statements and pledges that will horrify his White House handlers and NATO allies alike. But you should resist the urge to panic.
As with everything involving Trump, there will be theatricality, unprofessionalism, and a hefty dose of the bizarre. With the president scheduled to meet with NATO heads of state first, we may see a repeat of the strange spectacle in which he flounced away from the G7 meeting before tweeting shade at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then engaging in a love-in with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. If the NATO meeting goes badly, it may leave Trump all the more receptive to Putin’s carefully-calibrated overtures; whatever else one may say about the Russian president, he does seem to know how to read and handle people.
Of course, for Putin, simply getting a summit is a win. Central to his own campaign to Make Russia Great Again has been to get the world—and primarily that square mile of it centered on the White House—to consider his country a global player. If he can get anything else from the meeting, that’s just a bonus.
What can Putin actually offer Trump? Well, ego-strokes and nice optics—which are what he likes. But beyond that there is little serious chance of some major deal like the increasingly intangible one Trump claimed in Korea. Russia may want to hint at some kind of pragmatic trade—recognition of its annexation of Crimea in return, say, for a more flexible stance on Syria and Iran (the Israelis may be hoping Moscow will agree to nudge Iran out of Syria). Given that Trump is said to be keen to meet one-to-one, without aides or even his own translator, the way is wide-open for Putin to nudge his suggestible counterpart in all kinds of directions. (If the president is offered any gifts, Americans can only hope the Secret Service gives it the most thorough inspection in human history, given the Russians' historical propensity to generously provide everything from malware-laden USB drives to bugged national emblems.
But Trump is actually pretty restricted on what he can offer here. With Kim, he declared an end to military exercises in South Korea, but if he tried the same in Europe (something Putin will almost certainly suggest, drawing attention to their costs), not only is that more complex in light of existing NATO commitments, it would also be much more likely to cause trouble in both Congress and Trump’s own administration. After all, Republicans and Democrats have joined forces in the past to defend NATO from Trump’s White House.
Besides, his very inconsistency is in some ways a strength: what Trump says today, he can forget or deny tomorrow, without anyone being that surprised. (Ironically enough, the lack of witnesses to the Trump-Putin heart-to-heart could actually make this easier.) And there are still a few Trump chaperones left in DC happy to dismantle, defang, and bury his wackier policy ideas; look no further than how quickly the idea of a joint US-Russia cybersecurity partnership died.
This is at once the wonder and tragedy of Trumpland: nothing need last, and everything can be forgotten.
As befits the Tweeter-in-Chief, this meeting is all about appearance, spin, boast and bombast. The Russians know this. The Kremlin did its best to help Trump’s campaign—as the US Senate Intelligence Committee concluded this week—but never seemed to expect him actually to win, a development that by my own witness left many Russian foreign ministry staffers stunned and horrified. Since then, though, and the shock they endured when US cruise missiles pummeled Syria in April in response to a chemical attack on civilians, they have been studying Trump, his tells, his triggers, and his options assiduously. They will obviously take anything they can get, but their main objective is likely to be to try to maneuver Trump into making the kind of statements that unnerve everyone else, even if he can't deliver much in concrete terms.
New suggestions that NATO is "obsolete" or "expensive." Repeated hints that Moscow's seizure of Crimea could be recognized because people speak Russian there. A fresh refusal to meaningfully condemn the undeclared war in southeastern Ukraine or meddling in foreign elections, which would be especially glaring in light of the Senate report Tuesday. More fulminations about the WTO or a European Union "set up to take advantage of the United States."
These kind of statements have power precisely because they scare people into doing things that please the Russians. They undermine the unity of the West. They suggest that America doesn’t have its allies' backs, encouraging some to think they best make some kind of deal with Moscow. They dismay America's friends and embolden its enemies.
In fact, that’s already happening. Aware of what a train-wreck the G7 summit was, there is already a somewhat frantic behind-the-scenes discussion as to how to handle the NATO meeting. Facing the risk that taking too tough a line with Trump might send him on his way to see Putin angry and looking for validation, the allied leaders could over-compensate. They could be so desperate to avoid disaster that they flatter and placate him, leaving Trump to assume he’s now emperor of the West, free to make whatever deals he pleases.
But the important thing to remember is that little or nothing that is actually concrete is likely to come from the Helsinki summit. Neither president can afford to leave without being able to claim progress, so there will be commitments to closer cooperation fighting terrorism in Syria, or maybe new nuclear talks. But this will just be the start of the process, leaving ample scope for realism to reaffirm itself.
Which is to say everyone should chill: Accept that this is going to be a week of lunacy, but know that some new lunacy will come along soon and all will be forgotten, and the worst can be avoided. The Russians want us to be terrified of the summit, fixated on every off-the-cuff malapropism and weird photo op, and responding to it all. So let's be cool.
Indeed, the focus on the Trump-Putin fest actually distracts from the deeper problems, as Trump dismantles the Western alliance as much through ignorance and clumsiness as design, as trade wars escalate, and as arrogant and aggressive populism rises.
It’s actually not inherently crazy for the US president to meet his Russian counterpart. And there is real scope for some small-scale progress in the marginal meetings between officials. The headline act is likely to be a weird love-fest between the veteran autocrat and the wannabe, but we should be able to distinguish between reality and theatricality—and worry about everything else that is going on, instead.
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