It’s been three years since an American president met with Vladimir Putin, and the last time was an unmitigated disaster. Then-President Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in the summer of 2018, while Washington was eyeballs-deep in Robert Mueller III’s investitagion into whether Trump and his campaign worked with Russian operatives to throw the 2016 presidential race. Asked whether he pressed Putin about Russia’s election interference, Trump infamously sided with Putin over American intelligence agencies. “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump said from the lectern. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” The Russians laughed, the Americans were horrified, and Republicans were forced to condemn their party’s leader while doing absolutely nothing to give any heft to their disapproval. Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the most truculent of the Trump toadies, had to tisk-tisk the man to whom he had snuggled up like an eager pilot fish.
Now, a new American president is heading into a meeting with his Russian counterpart and everything has changed without anything having changed at all. In the intervening years, both countries have been through a lot: a presidential election, a global pandemic, and a whole lot of clarity as to what these two leaders represent.