HELSINKI—After weeks of frantic preparations and buildup, the world’s spotlight has come to Finland and gone, leaving behind controversy and confusion. U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flashy one-day meeting on Monday brought an international frenzy to the normally calm Finnish capital, culminating in a bizarre press conference that has left experts and commentators shell-shocked and declaring a symbolic victory for Russia. It was a disorienting and surreal conclusion to a diplomatic event that emphasized showmanship over substance from the beginning.
The tone for what was to come was set early in the day on Monday. Before meeting with Putin, Trump tweeted that the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations was the fault of “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!,” referring to Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in American politics. Obviously enthused, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted “We agree,” in response. Next, in a common power move used by the Russian president, Putin landed in Helsinki one hour late and zipped off the tarmac in his newly made Russian limousine as Trump waited with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the presidential palace and the TV cameras followed his motorcade through a cordoned-off Helsinki. Later, Putin emerged clearly satisfied after a roughly two-hour-long unrecorded one-on-one meeting with Trump and working lunch. Speaking to a packed room of attentive reporters, the two leaders failed to offer any concrete outcomes from their meeting, despite weeks of speculation over potential deals on Syria, Ukraine, and nuclear weapons. Still, Trump was eager to play up the spectacle of the event one last time. “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” he said early in the press conference before taking a dramatic pause. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that."