One man who knows a great deal about Washington-Moscow summits is not ready to call the latest one in Helsinki a failure, despite its confused aftermath.
From 1985 to 1991, across ten summits that brought the Cold War to an end and ushered in unprecedented cooperation between Washington and Moscow, Pavel Palazhchenko was a constant presence as chief interpreter for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In innumerable news photos from that era, he’s the guy with the dark suit and mustache discreetly standing beside or just behind Gorbachev.
So when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin took to their podiums in Helsinki last week, Palazhchenko was watching from Moscow to see how the latest chapter in the story would unfold.
His take on the controversial meeting: Next time, it might be a good idea to get things set down in writing.
But, he says, please keep holding these summits — even if the going gets difficult. There’s too much at stake not to talk.
Palazhchenko declined to call Helsinki an outright failure, even though after the meeting Trump walked back comments saying that he believed Putin when the Russian leader says that Russia was not involved in election meddling in the United States. Palazhchenko did concede there was a lack of clarity on exactly what the two world leaders agreed upon.
“A couple of mistakes were made … it was a mistake not to try to craft some kind of a joint statement,” Palazhchenko told The Associated Press in an interview. “The press conference did not go well. Those things happen, stuff happens. But nevertheless, one has to move forward. Perhaps they will correct some of the mistakes that were made and move forward by trying to build a coalition.”
He said it would “take time to understand what really happened” at the July 16 meeting in the Finnish capital.
“I think both Trump and Putin will be talking in the near future about what was achieved, about what they hope to achieve,” he said, add that, for Trump, the important thing “is to try to create a coalition in favor of improved relations and to have public support for that process.”
Palazhchenko stressed that the U.S.-Russian relationship was simply too important — to each side and to the world — for Russia and the United States not to talk.
“Those are still the two nuclear superpowers, even though more than 80 percent of the nuclear weapons that existed at the height of the Cold War have now been destroyed,” he said. “They still are both very influential and so strategically I think good relations between Russia and the U.S. are very, very necessary.”
Palazhchenko, 69, graduated from what is now Moscow State Linguistic University in 1972. He left government service after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and later worked at the Gorbachev Foundation as head of international and media relations.
He noted that just because two leaders disagree on important topics doesn’t mean a summit wasn’t worth it.
At a Geneva summit in 1985, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev argued vigorously over U.S. plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense, better known as “Star Wars.” But, Palazhchenko said, the summit ended with the declaration that nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought.” It also relaunched cultural and educational exchanges between the two superpowers and paved the way for later agreements to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
And spontaneity isn’t all bad — the 1990 Helsinki summit between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev “was something that was done almost on the spur of the moment.”
Palazhchenko says those summits succeeded because “both sides — Gorbachev and Reagan, Gorbachev and Bush — wanted it to succeed” and were able to set aside friction over spy scandals and other incidents taking place at the same time.
“The lesson is the value of process, mutual respect and persistence,” he said.
“I think Putin and Trump, too, wanted to succeed,” he added. “The way ahead will be very difficult … a lot of mines have not yet exploded and they will. But they I think are determined to improve their relationship.”
Democrats in Congress are now seeking to summon Trump’s State Department interpreter Marina Gross to find out what was discussed in the one-on-one talks with Putin in Helsinki. Palazhchenko called their request “extraordinary” but added “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The interpreter said he believes that history will look more kindly on this latest Helsinki summit than the media is doing now.
“It will be very difficult to repair what has been done over the past years (to U.S.-Russia relations) but it is something where I think, once the forward movement starts, I think history will be on their side,” he said.