Leonard Foeger / REUTERS U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, July 2018. 

The U.S. Needs a Russia Strategy Now More Than Ever

The Real Lesson From the Helsinki Summit

U.S. President Donald Trump shocked the world earlier this week when, standing side by side with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he refused to accept the basic facts of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump appeared to back Putin over his own intelligence community, saying during a press conference in Helsinki, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that hacked into Democratic Party servers. In that one answer, Trump guaranteed that the Helsinki summit would become a historic moment in U.S.-Russian relations. Although he later tried to reverse course by claiming he misspoke, the damage was done. Never in previous summits with Kremlin leaders had an American president looked so weak.

The controversy surrounding the press conference is more than understandable, but it should not overshadow another, perhaps more consequential, source of U.S. weakness on display in Helsinki. In the face of a growing Russian threat to the interests of the United States at home and around the globe, Washington still lacks anything resembling a grand strategy to meet it. Trump’s Helsinki performance showed the world that a year and a half into his administration, he has yet even to start crafting an approach. Unless that changes, as I argue in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (“Russia as It Is”), U.S. interests will be further compromised and Putin will be further emboldened.

A TALE OF TWO RUSSIA POLICIES

Trump’s questioning of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment at the summit was all the more alarming given the long-standing and well-documented evidence for Russian interference. A year and a half before the summit, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published an unclassified report that stated clearly and definitely that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

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