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Russia chalks up Trump-Putin summit as success. But is there a hidden cost?

For all the backlash in the US to President Trump's comments in Helsinki, there are pressing issues that Moscow and Washington need to discuss. And the Kremlin was very happy with how the summit addressed them.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) is interviewed by 'Fox News Sunday' host Chris Wallace after his meeting with President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP

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The Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin might as well have been two different events held on separate planets, to judge by the overwhelming media and establishment reactions in the United States and Russia.

The Russians went into the meeting hoping to arrest the death spiral in bilateral relations over the past couple of years. They came away very pleased with the upbeat tone struck between the two presidents and the real, if modest, pledges to restore dialogue on a variety of critical issues, ranging from nuclear arms control to a political settlement for Syria. Tuesday morning’s headline in the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta reflected a high level of official satisfaction: “Trump: Putin looked strong in Helsinki.”

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On the other side of the Atlantic, the mood expressed in major newspapers seemed one of near despair over Mr. Trump’s perceived kowtowing to Mr. Putin, and refusal Monday to support the US intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. “Why Won’t Donald Trump Speak for America?” asked The New York Times in an angry editorial that accused the US president of being “singularly naive, or deliberately ignorant” in failing to call Russia to account for its alleged wrongdoing. (On Tuesday, back in Washington, Trump claimed he misspoke, and that he accepts the conclusion that interference took place.)

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Remarkably, there is little indication that most leading Russian commentators take seriously the storm of anti-Trump outrage in the US. Nor are they concerned that it might drown out any actual progress made during the two-hour Trump-Putin tête-à-tête in Helsinki. Most Russians greet the allegation that Putin controls Trump with derision. And while they wouldn’t be surprised if the Kremlin did attempt to meddle in the 2016 election, they don’t believe that it was Russian efforts that put Trump in the White House.

But a few Russian experts, people with extensive contacts in the US, say they are worried. They say their American friends have never before expressed such unalloyed fury at Russia and blanket rejection of anything Putin says. The danger, they fear, is that anything Putin and Trump cook up together will be tainted and unacceptable to many Americans.

“If we were living through normal times, we would be justified in seeing Helsinki as a moderately successful summit,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs. “But these are anything but normal times. These days, issues of strategic policy are subordinated to domestic affairs, and any achievements can be derailed by the kind of angry, hostile reactions we are seeing” in the US.

“Trump certainly made a mistake by failing to seriously address the meddling issue that Americans are so preoccupied with. He even seemed to be taking sides with Putin,” Mr. Lukyanov says. “Many people in Moscow appear pleased at how good Putin looked in Helsinki, and may not be aware of the risk that it may have been completely counterproductive” to Russian long-term hopes of rebooting the relationship.

Pressing topics amid the politics

While no formal agreements were made or documents signed in Helsinki, the two leaders committed to re-establishing channels of communication that have been largely shut down amid the acrimony of recent months. They also agreed to look into extending the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. Otherwise, if the treaty expires on schedule in just three years, it will leave the two superpowers with no negotiated framework of strategic arms control for the first time in over four decades.

Trump seemed to endorse a deal for a Syria endgame, initiated last week between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which would see Bashar al-Assad remain in power and Russia exercise its influence to limit Iranian military deployments near Israel’s border with Syria.

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“One thing we think was very significant is that Putin, for the first time, publicly spoke about Israeli security as a goal of Russian policy,” says Lukyanov. “Americans should join this deal, and it would be a shame if it got ruined by the toxic political atmosphere surrounding Trump.”

Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a political journal published by George Washington University, says she worries that Trump may not be the only one in the US making bad decisions amid the present political turmoil.

“I know many Americans are seized with a desire to punish Putin and get Trump,” says Ms. Lipman, who had a regular column about Russian affairs in The Washington Post for 10 years.

“This may be in tune with their emotions, but it is not good politics. Trump’s critics are looking at the summit as just another occasion to go after him, to roast him over the allegations of Russian meddling, but they should stop at attacking the process itself. Look, nothing bad happened at the summit,” she says.

“Americans are angry at Trump for something he cannot possibly deliver. He isn’t able to make Putin confess about election meddling. Putin will just deny it, as he has many times before. Are we saying that it’s impossible to move beyond that, to discuss things that urgently need to be talked about between the US and Russia?”

'Russia needs to get smarter'

Putin’s apparent complacency about his summit success, and the general feeling in Moscow that Trump must have prevailed over his domestic opponents, may be due to a lack of understanding in the Kremlin of how the US system works, says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

“Putin is the ultimate leader in Russia. His word is final,” he says. “He tends to project that on other leaders he meets, which is why he does very well with authoritarian leaders, who have similar weight within their own political systems. It is difficult for him to see that the US system doesn’t work this way,” and that anything Trump decides might get canceled out amid public outcry and congressional push-back.

Russia policy risks becoming a long-term casualty of Trump’s domestic battles, he says.

“Russia needs to get smarter, and diversify its outreach to various segments of the American establishment. We should be talking to the Democrats, Congress, think tanks, and others, explaining ourselves and forming relationships. It’s just not enough to meet the top guy and decide things with him. We urgently need to realize this,” he says.