To The Finland Station: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's Helsinki Summit Holds Danger, Opportunities For Both

Deep in the Great Depression, when many Americans were questioning whether capitalism had failed them, the influential leftist literary critic Edmund Wilson sailed off to Russia with an open mind about Soviet-style "socialism." It didn't take long for the scales to drop from his eyes.

"They haven't even the beginnings of democratic institutions; but they are actually worse off in that respect than when they started," he confessed to a friend in 1938. "They have totalitarian domination by a political machine." Indeed, by the time he finished writing To the Finland Station, his admiring take on Bolshevik firebrand Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin was already ankle deep in blood, murdering opponents at home and abroad and scheming to undermine the West.

Vladimir Putin's Russia has resumed many practices of the old communist bosses, albeit with far more domestic popularity, generating fear among its former Soviet neighbors, trepidation in Western Europe and alarm in the precincts of official Washington disgusted by President Donald J. Trump's fondness for foreign strongmen. Trump's critics, who have already wasted terabytes bashing his eagerness to give Putin a pass on interference in U.S. politics, his seizure of Crimea, and assassination of dissidents and defectors, will be autopysing his every alpha-male gesture and remark for signs that he's been conned like he was in Singapore, when Kim Jong Un posed as a peacemaker and then reportedly hustled home to resume work on his nuclear weapons.

But the Helsinki TV spectacular is just another distraction from what's been going on below decks with regard to Russia and Trump. Yes, he's slapped sanctions on Putin's cronies, however unenthusiastically, but he's also quietly allowed U.S. defenses against Russian subversion to wither—when he's not been actively dismantling them. Nothing positive out of Finland will change that.

On June 20, to cite the latest alarming example, Trump let John Bolton, his erstwhile hawkish national security adviser—his third in 18 months—fire White House cyber czar Rob Joyce and eliminate his office entirely. "This is definitely not the signal you want to send to your allies and your adversaries," Michael Daniel, who served as cybersecurity coordinator under President Barack Obama, said at a congressional hearing in mid-May.

Not that Joyce had been allowed to do much. For 18 months, critics alarmed by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean hacks and subversion had been complaining that the White House hadn't freed Joyce to seized the multiple reins of cyber defenses scattered among several agencies and bridle them together in a unified strategy. Dan Coats, Trump's own director of national intelligence (the behemoth invented 16 years ago to coordinate our spies and counterspy agencies), rued to Congress that, "There's no single agency, quote, in charge" of addressing the problem. "It's clearly something that needs to be addressed, and addressed as quickly as possible," he said.

The White House refused to let Joyce testify. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which supposedly has a key role in drafting policy to thwart subversion, is also adrift. In early June, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley turned the nomination of former FBI agent William Evanina, who's been running the agency in an "acting" capacity since 2014, into a pawn in the Republicans' war with the Justice Department over its handling of the Hillary Clinton and Russiagate investigations. His nomination is on an indefinite hold as Russia steps up its preparations for the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, in mid-May, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a strategy paper on cybersecurity and said the DHS was "rethinking its approach."

The Kremlin must be smirking. Victoria Nuland, the Obama administration's senior official for Russia, told Congress in June that Moscow was "turbocharging" its clandestine social media efforts to divide Americans on hot-wire issues like race and gun control.. Nuland, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration and a top adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney, believes like many other experts that Putin's ultimate goal is to erode Americans' faith in their major institutions—from federal law enforcement to the courts to the elections. He's been so successful, she said, that China is emulating his techniques, running "disinformation campaigns and influence operations in Taiwan, Australia and other neighboring countries."

There's nothing surprising in that. Subversion has been a go-to weapon of statecraft ever since the Greeks invented the Trojan horse about 3,000 years ago. In 1917, Germany smuggled Lenin from exile in Switzerland back into Russia to foment chaos and take Moscow out of World War One. (For its part, Germany was caught trying to inveigle Mexico into attacking the southwest U.S. ) Britain, meanwhile, secretly bankrolled anti-Bolshevik organizations to bring down the Russian revolution and assassinate Lenin. While the so-called "Lockhart Affair," named after London's envoy to Moscow, has been largely forgotten in the West, it's etched into the memory of Russia's security officials—and most certainly the mind of Putin, an ex-KGB operative. To Putin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's backing of Russian civil rights groups smacked of a replay.

And it's payback time.

For the past several years Russia has been fueling far-right nationalist parties in the U.K, France, Italy, Germany and its former Soviet states to fracture the European Union and NATO. Britain's "Brexit" was a spectacular success, although facts on its exact role remain elusive. According to a Thursday report in The Washington Post, however, special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into ties between the Russians, a shadowy group of wealthy Britons and Trump campaign officials in the Brexit effort.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this backdrop, it's hard to imagine Trump doing a U-turn and shoring up U.S. defenses. In the meantime, good things could actually come out of the Finland summit, a few experienced Kremlin observers tell Newsweek. "I'm reserving judgment" until after the summit, former top CIA Russia hand Daniel Hoffman said. There are pockets of cooperation both sides could maintain—in counterterrorism, on North Korea, on preventing the spread of nuclear or biological weapons, he said. There's also a pressing need to extend the 2011 treaty on the reduction of nuclear warheads, known as New START, which expires in 2021. Trump says bringing the savage war in Syria to an end is on the top of his agenda.

Trump and Putin could do all that—not a bad thing. It's the prospect of Putin demanding Trump lift sanctions as the price of looking good in Helsinki that worries many observers. Under such pressure, they fret, Trump may give Putin a pass on the seizure of Crimea, a red line for Germany's Angela Merkel and other NATO members. If he can get away with that, they fear, Putin's appetite for recapturing former Soviet territory in the Baltics or Eastern Europe will only be whetted.

Others say give peace a chance. "I am not in an anti-meeting camp," says Nina Khrushcheva, the great-grand daughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who nearly brought the world to nuclear extinction by smuggling ballistic missiles into Cuba. "They have been talking about it for so long they do need to meet at some point."

Plus, the psychometrics are good, she said. "Trump is on the roll showing off his manhood around the world, and Putin is in world-statesman mode after the St. Petersburg [International Economics] Forum, the World Cup etc.," said Khrushcheva, now professor of international affairs at The New School. "So they both feel they are going in from a strong position." That's a far cry from September 2016, when Obama icily told Putin to "cut it out"—meaning meddling in the U.S. elections.

And it's not like having the two presidents talk is a problem, she and others agree. It's more about what comes after. Will it be good or bad? Who knows?

"If they really get along, as they plan to," Khrushcheva said, "this is where real collusion will begin."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to U.S. President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria//File Photo