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Trump-Putin summit hits last-minute turbulence

It was always within the realms of possibility that there might be some last-minute attempt made by the strong and vociferous opposition within the United States to President Donald Trump aimed at undermining his Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

The suspense was about if this would happen, how it would happen and from which quarter the attempt would be made. That suspense has now ended.

The charge is being led by none other than Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of Russian collusion in Trump’s 2016 election win.

With impeccable timing, the weekend before Monday’s summit, Mueller issued a detailed indictment against 12 Russian nationals purportedly working for the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU), holding them responsible for “large-scale cyber operations” designed “to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.”

The 29-page document broadly outlines how Mueller reached this conclusion. But it lacks hard evidence and, prima facie, without incontrovertible proof, it may be hard to prove anything.

Indeed, the indictment may not even come before a court for that reason. Besides, an open trial could open a Pandora’s box – such as casting light on any illegal snooping that might have taken place during the 2016 election by other parties. Those parties could well include American security agencies – as has been alleged already.

Wouldn’t Mueller, a highly experienced lawyer himself and a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, know all this? Of course, he would. Nonetheless, he acted – and chose the last working day before the Helsinki summit to do so.

Was Mueller’s motivation for doing so entirely altruistic? Was it an act by a high-spirited public official inspired by the call of duty? There are no easy answers.

Trump and his supporters are certain to severely question Mueller’s motivation and action. But Mueller’s indictment nonetheless poses problem for Trump when he sits down with Putin. At the very minimum, Mueller’s has been a masterstroke – insofar as his act has virtually reset the agenda of the Helsinki summit.

Mueller is now, de facto, the agenda in Helsinki as far as the American media and Washington elite are concerned. The two statesmen at the summit table in Helsinki cannot pretend otherwise or proceed to have a “constructive engagement” over Russian-American relations.

To be sure, the Russian side will devote the entire weekend available to them to choreograph a new approach to the summit, taking into account the new situation that Mueller has created. All indications are that the Russian side had factored in a possibility that the run-up to the Helsinki summit wouldn’t be smooth as velvet. Commentators had speculated openly about possible Western attempts to scuttle the summit.

The Russian estimation would have been that the infamous “military-industrial complex” in the US might precipitate something ugly on the ground, as used to happen during the Cold War, thereby tarnishing the atmosphere leading up yo Helsinki. But there is no sign suggesting that Moscow anticipated such an assault by Mueller.

In fact, Russian commentators have lately appeared complacent, in the belief that Trump had largely weathered the Mueller inquiry, is steadily consolidating his grip on the political apparatus in Washington and within the Republican Party, and so is reaching a position from which to can serious business with Putin.

Of course, there has been profound skepticism in Moscow. Given the pervasive Russophobia in the US, even if the Helsinki summit succeeded beyond all expectations, the gains may not prove enduring, and follow-up may be slow and hesitant from the American side.

In an extraordinary interview with an Italian newspaper last week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu implicitly voiced the Kremlin’s deep misgivings regarding the future trajectory of Russia-US relations. His concerns focused on the incoherence and disarray in the Trump administration’s foreign policies, and the deep antagonism amongst American elites towards the very idea of an equal relationship with Russia.

Shoigu alleged that the US doesn’t even have a policy on Syria – a topic widely expected to top the Helsinki agenda. Shoigu is one of Putin’s closest aides and would not have spoken out so bluntly without a definite political objective: To underscore for the Western audience that Putin was engaging Trump with no illusions over the state of play in Russian-American relations, or of Russia’s standoff with the West.

Mueller’s indictment will face withering criticism from Moscow, which has consistently held the view that the “Russian collusion” inquiry lacks any real evidence. Mueller’s latest indictment is unlikely to make any substantial difference to the Russian stance.

But deep down, there is bound to be a sense of disappointment that a splendid opportunity to improve Russia-US relations is going to waste.

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