It was going to be Donald Trump’s “easiest” meeting, at least according to Trump himself. After a week of tense exchanges with allies in Brussels and then the U.K., the U.S president would head to Helsinki for his first formal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then on Friday, right as the president was settling down to tea with the Queen, the indictments came; the Justice Department accused 12 officers of Russian intelligence with specific crimes related to meddling in the 2016 election—the one U.S. intelligence says the Russians wanted to throw to Trump.
If Trump is worried this will cast a pall over the summit, American intelligence officials have plenty of other reasons to worry about the meeting. Notwithstanding any indictment-related awkwardness, the summit will still be a gift to Putin—an unearned opportunity for him to break out of his immediate struggles and achieve a variety of otherwise impossible goals. Indeed, through a number of aggressive and provocative actions that appeared to provide short-term wins, Putin has nonetheless gotten himself trapped. His country is heavily sanctioned, economically weak, overextended, and lacking in allies. His unprovoked land grab in Crimea, attack on neighboring Ukraine, electoral interference in the U.S. and Europe, assassination of opponents, support to Syria’s bloody dictator Bashar al-Assad and constant lies have left him ostracized in much of the developed world. He can no longer offer his people wealth or the vision of a better future. He instead relies on the tools of oppression and scapegoats to blame for his failures. The dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon.