HELSINKI—There’s a strong sense of déjà vu as U.S. President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, prepare to sit down together in Helsinki on Monday. The Finnish capital hosted numerous Cold War-era negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, and both presidents are eager to portray themselves as the leaders of two superpowers prepared to make their mark on history. But while the location and parties involved might be familiar, the similarities between the upcoming meeting in Finland and its Cold War antecedents stop there.
Unlike past U.S. presidents that came to Helsinki as ambassadors for the Western world, Trump comes as the man who is throwing it into chaos. Before departing for his European trip earlier this week, Trump quipped that his sit-down with the Russian president “may be the easiest of them all.” The meetings that preceded it were certainly difficult. While the final communiqué from the NATO summit contained unified and tough language against Russia ahead of the meeting in Finland, much of that has been undercut by Trump’s own behavior and rhetoric. The NATO summit was by all accounts tense—most notably with Germany— who Trump accused of being “captive to Russia” due to plans to build a new gas pipeline. The dark cloud of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election—as well as the recent indictment of Russian military intelligence officers by a federal grand jury—will keep the issue of election interference and Trump’s seeming unwillingness to press Putin on the issue in the spotlight. “Trump is going to Helsinki after having shown a lot of disdain for the Western alliance and lots of praise for Putin,” Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia and a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “I’d think that’s making Putin quite pleased.”