How Putin Squandered His Helsinki Triumph

Putin’s domestic opponents bet on rational, predictable outcomes—and they keep being undercut by reality.

Vladimir Putin
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

Hesitance mixed with fear—that’s the feeling the Trump-Putin meeting was met with by the liberal circles in Moscow, or what is left of them by now. The country has been hemorrhaging its best and brightest ever since Vladimir Putin returned triumphantly to the Kremlin in 2012.

Since then, the liberal middle classes have steadily lost influence in the face of powerful Kremlin propaganda. Democratic values and fighting corruption didn’t sound as appealing as the resurgence of the great Russian empire. The horrors of the Syrian war were played skillfully against protesters in Moscow: “We know what the revolution is like—do we want bloodshed on our streets?” was a constant refrain on Russian TV. The propaganda was supplemented by selective repression; the government had learned back in the Soviet times that patriotism is a meal best served with fear.

But the liberals and Western-oriented intellectuals also lost because a set of rational arguments suddenly ceased to work. They argued that a country with a relatively weak economy couldn’t start a war and get away without consequences. But Putin started a war in Ukraine, and the Western sanctions didn’t achieve their desired effect on the Russian economy. Putin simply gave businesses more contracts from the military-industrial complex, securing their loyalty and tying them with secrecy.

Many pro-Kremlin political technologists argued with the Kremlin, politely, that it was too risky to give up the government’s monopoly on violence and have all kind of adventurers take up arms and go to Ukraine. It couldn’t end well—and it didn’t, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down in 2014—but that failed to undermine the Kremlin’s legitimacy. So pro-Kremlin political technologists lost access to the Kremlin and joined the liberals on the margins of society.

The losing side, which swelled with each new adventure—not only liberal politicians and political technologists, but also the community of experts, journalists, and intellectuals of every kind—argued that no country could get away with isolating itself from the world. That’s not how it played out. Russia lost its seat in the G8 but got its World Cup, and the Kremlin won deserved praise for its organization of the event from world leaders, who came to Moscow to cheer for their team. So more people moved to the margins, or left the country for good.

This summer has already evoked too many bad memories. The World Cup repeated the incredible success of the Sochi Olympics in 2014—the very success that many Russians believe emboldened Putin to annex Crimea. The last argument of rational people—forget about democracy—was that the country could not survive and prosper with governance this bad and bureaucrats this incompetent.

But we have Putin, many now reply. When things fail, Putin comes up with a solution, another brilliant tactical move, and saves the day. It’s the message his government promotes, and a sentiment many in Russia genially share. The Kremlin regime, which always revolved around one person, became even more tightly controlled by Putin over the past four years. Not only outside professionals found themselves losing influence—the expert community inside the government bureaucracy found itself in exactly the same situation. The declining role of all kinds of institutions—from defining and executing foreign policy to handling economy—became visible, but nobody seemed to care.

You cannot meddle in the elections of the most powerful country in the world and get away with it. After all, it has the most resourceful intelligence community. That, too, once seemed a rational argument. Too bad for those who dared to urge caution. If there was ever a competition between the intelligent and adventurous in the Kremlin, the latter are obviously winning the game.

After 2016, the United States hit Russia hard. There were sanctions, a worldwide hunt for Russian hackers known for their ties to secret services, and naming and shaming, which started with the FSB hackers indicted in the Yahoo hacking case and ended with 12 GRU officers exposed by Robert Mueller.

The effects are visible in Moscow. The main FSB cyber unit, the Information Security Center, was struck by purges, its head forced into retirement and two deputy heads prosecuted. Those firms in the Russian IT community that were involved in cybersecurity lost access to Western markets, while Russian oligarchs are curtailing their presence in the West. But these effects were largely felt by Russian institutions, which Putin himself was the first to attack, and Russian businesses, which Putin has been busy intimidating.

Weeks before the meeting in Helsinki, high-ranking Russian officials were making advances to their Western counterparts. They indicated the willingness of Moscow to end the conflict with the West. They were carefully preparing the ground, but not for what happened in Helsinki. Putin, provoked by Donald Trump, simply overdid it, openly reveling in his long-sought status as the leader of a superpower, a status affirmed by the U.S. president.

The question is whether there are any people left in the Kremlin who dare to understand that Helsinki was a blown opportunity for the country, sacrificed for Putin’s ego, or, more probably, for the former KGB officer’s enjoyment of his success.