HELSINKI: TRUMP CAME BEARING GIFTS

To be clear, Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t actually leave yesterday’s extraordinary summit in Helsinki with much in the way of substance. US sanctions on Russia will remain firmly in place, and Congress could well impose more. US President Donald Trump made no public concessions on actual policy issues like the placement of NATO troops in Europe, nor did he accept the Russian annexation of Crimea, as he had earlier suggested he might.


But symbolically, Putin went home happy. Very, very happy. It’s useful to recall that since coming to power at the turn of the millennium, Putin has made it his mission to exorcise the geopolitical humiliations of the 1990s, to return Russia to a position of regional power and global respect. To, you might say, Make Russia Great Again.

Above all that has meant forcing the US to reckon with Russia as an equal on the world stage. To that end, Putin played a weak hand remarkably: perceiving US efforts to weaken his regional clout, his troops challenged US interests and red lines in Georgia, then in Ukraine, and ultimately in Syria. Meanwhile, his spooks worked to exacerbate the existing polarization of American politics as part of a project to, at the very least, weaken the example of US democracy.

Against that backdrop Trump gave Putin three gifts in Helsinki yesterday: first, by meeting with him at all, he signaled a retreat from the US policy of isolating the Kremlin, which has been in effect at least since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Putin almost giddily declared as much in his interview with FOX after the summit.

Second, while it was difficult to foresee Trump making much of the election meddling issue – why would he undermine the legitimacy of an improbable electoral victory that he is still obsessed with recounting? – his abject trashing of his own Justice Department handed Putin a propaganda coup, further exacerbating precisely the crisis of legitimacy in American institutions that Russia’s president has sought to exploit.

Lastly, Trump enthusiastically accepted the Russian narrative of US responsibility for the deterioration of relations. Putin couldn’t help himself: in a metaphorical dig, he gave Trump a World Cup ball and said, literally, “the ball is in your court.”

But here’s the question: as Trump’s advisers sit down with their Russian counterparts to explore fresh cooperation on key issues like nuclear arms, Syria, Ukraine, or Iran – will Putin’s symbolic victory translate into substantive change?

Populist nationalists who have rocked the political establishment in European capitals from Rome to Berlin in recent years now have their sights trained on a new target: the European Union itself.

Starting tomorrow, voters across the bloc's 28 member states will cast ballots for the next European Parliament, the Union's legislature. Candidates from across the bloc compete for 751 seats that are divvied up roughly according to each member state's population.

The Parliament is the only democratically elected governing body of the EU, and it has final say over contentious issues like EU-wide migration policy, trade rules, and budget allocations. The EU Parliament also plays a role in selecting the EU Commissioner, the bloc's most powerful official.

That power is something that far-right populists, buoyed by success in their own countries, now want a bigger piece of. In particular, Italy's Matteo Salvini and France's Marine Le Pen, whose parties once advocated for leaving the EU, are now joining in a loose alliance with other populist nationalists, hoping to win enough seats to bend EU rules in the more anti-immigrant and nationalistic direction that their supporters want.

Polls suggest the nationalists will do very well: A pro-EU coalition of the center-left and center-right is expected to lose its majority for the first time in 40 years, as parties from the extremes, but particularly the right, surge.

But they are still badly fragmented. While the populist-nationalists agree that they want less oversight from Brussels and a more restrictive immigration policy, they haven't been able to coalesce into a single bloc, because of disagreements over who would lead the group and what its main objectives should be. That means that the next EU Parliament may end up deeply fragmented and ineffectual.

The campaigning for EU Parliament also has a lot to do with national politics, and here there are a few key implications to watch:

French President Emmanuel Macron's forceful and defining push for a more unified Europe would effectively be dead if populist parties score a big victory – that could pull the rug out from under him in national politics as well.

Italy's Salvini might call for snap elections at home if the polls confirm his Lega Party's growing popularity.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party, which faces national elections later this year, is looking to gauge whether its prolonged fight with the EU over rule of law and cultural issues has been a political winner or if it's a reason the party has lost some ground to the opposition.

The upshot: Far from a snooze-fest, this week's elections could significantly shift the direction of the world's largest economic bloc.

Does the European Union even hear the voices of average European citizens? As millions of people prepare to cast ballots in European Parliament elections, that's a good question. As this graphic shows, more Europeans feel "heard" by the EU today than ten years ago. But what, precisely, they are saying to the EU with those voices is something that we'll understand better when we see the election results this weekend.

Back in January, we warned that an intensifying "Tech Cold War" between the US and China over technology and trade could plunge global innovation into a deep freeze as both countries impose fresh restrictions on the free flows of money, people, and information that (throughout history) have powered new ideas.

We're not at the winter solstice of innovation just yet, but the US's move last week to restrict Chinese networking equipment giant Huawei's access to US markets and technology sent an awfully chilly wind through the tech sector.

Here are two ways that a decoupling of the Chinese and American tech sectors could damage innovation in the US:

  • Less good money: Huawei spends roughly $10 billion a year buying hardware and software from US firms. Total Chinese tech industry purchases are many times greater than that. A portion of that money is reinvested by Silicon Valley in R&D; to help develop the next generation of innovative tech products. If Chinese firms can't – or won't – buy from American companies, a lot of R&D; cash will vanish.
  • Fewer good brains: US semiconductor companies are already struggling to hire highly coveted Chinese engineers as the Trump administration slow-rolls their visa applications over national security fears. But top tech talent is hard to come by, and there aren't always qualified workers from the US or other countries available to pick up the slack.

The upshot: The United States has plenty of well-founded grievances with how China runs its economy and its increasingly powerful tech sector. But the costs of Washington's more confrontational approach are already becoming apparent. Those costs will rise further if the US and China's deeply linked tech sectors decouple more fully and formally, as some China hawks in the US hope. At what point do the costs start to outweigh the benefits?

Iran's proxies – The thing about "proxies" is that you don't always have perfect control over what they do. To varying degrees, Iran funds and backs Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various militias in Iraq. But these groups also have agendas and interests of their own. Sometimes they'll do things Iran doesn't want them to do. At a time of high tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, these proxies can create trouble for Iran whether they've acted in coordination with its government or not.

Finns fighting fake news "Fake news," the dissemination of false information designed to create confusion and sow division, has become a truly global problem, but at least one country has a proven track record in helping its citizens to recognize and reject it. Finland has faced information warfare in various forms since declaring independence from Russia a century ago, but since Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014, the country's government has worked hard to help its people – in particular high school students -- spot false information. This report suggests we can all learn something from the Finns' example.

What We're Ignoring: Fruitless British ploys and Venezuelans at the Pentagon

A second referendum on Brexit – A collective guffaw arose in the office here when we learned yesterday that British Prime Minister Theresa May had made yet another attempt to rally support for her thrice-rejected deal to leave the EU. This time she promised to let Parliament vote on whether to hold a second referendum on Brexit, but only if MPs pass her withdrawal agreement first. It's a notable concession by May, who had previously resisted calls for another referendum. But some prominent Brexit supporters have rejected the move, and we doubt that a whole lot of Remainers will be swayed by a promise to hold a vote on whether to ask the public to hold a vote.

Venezuelan talks – An emissary of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó (recognized as president by more than 50 countries) went to the Pentagon on Monday for talks with the US military, evidently about humanitarian assistance. This follows last week's meetings in Norway between reps of both Guaidó and President Nicolas Maduro. Talks are good, but we don't see much scope for progress. Guaidó wants the one thing – free and fair elections – that would be certain political suicide for Maduro, whose approval rating is a deservedly pitiful 12 percent. But following Guaidó's failed April 30 uprising, the Maduro regime is feeling like it's got the momentum now. We see no compromises on the horizon.