Helsinki, Finland—Following Monday’s disruptive Trump-Putin Summit, both the American public and U.S. allies are concerned. As President Trump and President Putin discussed matters pertaining to Syria, arms control and election interference, both the statements that were made and left unsaid contributed to widespread apprehension of the future of Russian-American relations. While most of the news coverage has focused on the behavior of President Trump at the press conference following their meeting, here is what we know on the substantive issues they said they discussed. Counter-Terrorism in Syria The leaders highlighted cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts in Syria as a means to reconcile U.S.-Russia relations. Agreeing that Syria has sparked both regional and humanitarian crises, President Putin cited the “Treaty of 1974” (specifically the Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement) and the need for Syrians to fully comply with the treaty that calls for Israeli and Syrian forces to separate and disengage. President Trump stated that the Syrian crisis is “a complex one” and prioritized further cooperation. However, as it has been widely reported Russia’s backing of Assad and the United States’ support of an opposing rebel faction to the government makes cooperation unlikely. Arms Control In terms of denuclearization, the presidents stated that they hope to construct a disarmament agenda. President Trump commended himself on his meeting with Chairman Kim last month while President Putin highlighted extending “the strategic offensive arms limitation treaty.” Putin also stated his apprehension of the global American anti-missile defense system. A Wall Street Journal article notes, however, that “Mr. Putin didn’t urge deeper cuts in nuclear arms” and avoided discussions related to Russia’s violation of the 1987 accord. Election Interference The issue of Russia’s interference in American elections garnered the most attention at the summit’s press conference. As the Helsinki summit followed U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to indict 12 Russian intelligence officers for “conspiring to hack into Democrats’ computers, steal documents and interfere in the U.S. presidential election,” many wondered how President Trump would use this information going into his meeting with President Putin. When directly asked if he believes Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies regarding election interference, President Trump failed to use this opportunity to “denounce [Russian] meddling.” “I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be [President Putin],” Trump stated. “But I really do want to see the server but I have, I have confidence in both parties.” Rather than confronting the issue, President Trump focused on Hillary Clinton, her emails and the Democratic National Committee. The American president asked, some variation of “Where is the server?” on five different accounts. When President Putin was asked whether he wanted Mr. Trump to win the election, Putin responded saying, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did.” The Russian president additionally argued that the acts of private Russian individuals do not mean that the Russian state was behind their actions and that election meddling is an issue to be solved in courts. A Ceremonious Handoff? At the summit’s closing, President Putin handed a World Cup soccer ball to President Trump, stating “And now the ball is in your court.” While this interaction could be perceived as a ceremonious handoff to the United States co-hosting the World Cup in 2026, it is also a symbolic indication that Putin views himself as the summit’s overall victor—even though the summit was intended to open up bilateral diplomacy between the two nations. The summit was largely more pomp and circumstance than substance, but many fear how President Trump was “played by old KGB hands.” As GOP allies have took to Twitter to call Mr. Trump’s summit statements as “disgraceful,” “wrong” and even “disgusting,” individuals across the political spectrum recognize that President Trump’s passivity against Russian aggression is alarming. His preceding summit tweet, opening conference statements and failure to denounce Russia’s meddling in the election all buttress the growing argument that Donald Trump “Blames America First” rather than prioritizes “America First.”
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