A former Soviet Union interpreter explains why Trump’s meeting with Putin was extraordinary

Not so great expectations.
Not so great expectations.
Image: Jorge Silva/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On July 16, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump held bilateral talks in Helsinki. The leaders of the United States and Russia haven’t met quite like this, at a formal summit in a third country, for almost 15 years. To get a sense of the magnitude of such a diplomatic event like this, Riga-based news outlet Meduza (Russian) spoke to Pavel Palazhchenko, who served as a interpreter for General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Palazhchenko participated in many similar bilateral summits in the late 1980s. His interview has been excerpted below for Quartz. 

You took part in almost all the Russian-American summits during the Gorbachev era, right?

In all of them, starting with Geneva in November 1985 and ending with Bush [in Moscow] in July-August 1991. In total, there were 10 summits.

Now it’s already been a year and a half since Trump took office, and the presidents of Russia and the U.S. haven’t once sat down for a full-fledged meeting. That is, of course, a serious negative. Two countries like these can’t afford a total absence of top-level negotiations for a year and a half. That kind of thing shouldn’t happen.

That’s why the people preparing the summit and and presidents themselves are faced with quite a challenge. In all this time, a whole lot has built up, and it’s not really clear how they’re supposed to clean it up. A summit works when there’s something both sides can offer each other.

Being an interpreter in negotiations like this involves more than just translating. You’ve got to be a diplomat, too.

Of course. I was employed by the Foreign Ministry, and for just the last year I worked on the [Soviet] presidential staff. In the Foreign Ministry, everyone in the translation department was assigned a diplomatic rank, according to the length of their service. When I started, I think I was a third secretary, and when I finished I was a senior adviser. If I hadn’t left the ministry after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I probably could have served long enough to become an ambassador without any problem. But that was never my aim.

There’s an official rank, and then there’s influence. I didn’t seek influence, but when I’d already established a relationship with Gorbachev after 1987, an interpreter could ask certain questions. And if the president puts questions to his interpreter, he answers. When [1985-1990 Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze asked me something, or when Gorbachev asked me something, I gave them my opinion.

Did [offering opinions to the foreign minister or president] happen during negotiations?

No, of course. In October 1986, then Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and I were in Washington. There was a discussion with Reagan—it was during a time of strained relations because of the spy scandal. Reykjavik was hanging by a thread, and it wouldn’t have happened at all, if the spy scandal wasn’t handled. At that meeting, I was there alone with Shevardnadze, and Reagan was there alone with his interpreter. There was nobody else.

Afterwards, we went into a secure room, where nobody could listen in, and in the presence of the [Soviet] ambassador and his aides, Shevardnadze asked me how I thought the meeting went. I said that it went alright, considering the circumstances. In any case, I was sure that Reagan had decided not to make matters worse. He needed the summit in Reykjavik, too.

So, basically, there are situations [when the interpreter weighs in], but not voluntarily, so to speak, on his own initiative.

When people talk about leaders meeting one-on-one, is this literally just two people plus their interpreters?

Yes, plus maybe another two people—usually aides. But when he met with Kim Jong-un, Trump insisted on only interpreters. This is very unusual.

In my time, for most of the one-on-one meetings, there were actually three people present on each side. Thanks to such negotiations, things can come up that weren’t part of a previous agreement.

There was a perfect example of this in Reykjavik. There were suggestions from our side, and there was a working group that met literally overnight. Then Reagan and Gorbachev sat down again, and agreed on the main parameters for reducing arms—and it was based mainly on our proposal, which took into account the Americans’ position. Who could have predicted such a breakthrough? True, they didn’t manage to reach an agreement about missile defense, and so all the other agreements seemed to be left hanging, but they were resolved later.

Diplomats leave some questions that need to be resolved by the “principals”—by the leaders—in the course of their negotiations. And this is only natural. Otherwise, our leaders would just be some kind of puppets, acting out a script. Nobody wants that.

Trump, for example, after meeting with Kim Jong-un, announced that he was suspending American military exercises that they’d been conducting jointly with the South Koreans. This was a complete surprise. And this is a president’s sovereign right: making such decisions and announcing them. I don’t think anybody on the American side even saw it coming; it was his individual decision.

You mentioned mutual sympathy between Putin and Trump. Everyone remembers Bush’s line about “looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul.” How do people develop trust in these negotiations?

Recall the first meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev [in Geneva]: It went on for two days in November 1985. They held a lunch at the Soviet embassy. At the discussion, their wives attended, and I believe so did the foreign ministers—Schultz and Shevardnadze. They had a conversation and touched on a few personal subjects. It was most likely a distraction from the negotiations, in part because there were ladies present. Things were said that I believe helped build a personal relationship. At the same time, trust is established over a period of time, and it depends on whether you can facilitate relations. If you can, then trust grows gradually.

For example, when we agreed to Reagan’s “Zero Option” suggestion on medium-range missiles, he started to face intense pressure [in the US] to back out. But Reagan insisted that America accept the proposal, and it was a step toward building trust. When we saw that they were responding correctly to our decision to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan (that they weren’t creating problems for our withdrawing forces), this was also a step toward trust.

Already under Bush, the Americans saw that we supported demands that Iraqi forces withdraw from Kuwait, and we put pressure on Iraq. This was the first armed conflict that didn’t develop according to the laws of the Cold War, where if America supports one side, then we support the other. We were the first ones to break from this, and that also built trust.

What else? When it became clear that the Soviet Union really wouldn’t use troops to prevent the changes that began in Eastern Europe and the GDR. We had tens of thousands of armed people in tanks, and calling those tanks out into the streets during mass demonstrations could have had a fearsome effect. But we decided against it.

So, in the end, trust isn’t built mainly on personal relationships, but on how bilateral problems are resolved, and whether you’re able to foster cooperation and reciprocity.

Reagan was a very conservative politician. At first, he probably didn’t trust Gorbachev at all, just as a Soviet person and as a general secretary?

Of course. We started with a very high level of mutual distrust. But first—and this was key—it was possible to resolve issues gradually. And second, Reagan was a conservative person, but he was ultimately well-meaning. The same goes for Gorbachev, though he had a very different sense of humor. Gorbachev’s humor was mostly reactions. With Reagan, it was mainly prepared things, like anecdotes, jokes, and sayings.

All the same, their personalities shared a sense of goodwill. Roughly speaking, they both had a certain optimism and a belief that a problem could be solved and they had people’s support. That’s what they had. It wasn’t a Hobbesian approach that the world is everyone at war against everyone, but a conviction that you needed to sit down, talk, and you could achieve something.

Were there certain things that didn’t come up publicly? Any conflicts or arguments?

There were issues that were never resolved throughout the whole period of relations between Gorbachev and Reagan. Above all, this was the “Star Wars” program, or as we called it: the problem of missile defense. The Americans’ position was completely inflexible: under no circumstances would they abandon this program. This irritated Gorbachev. I even saw how he sometimes literally had to fight with himself about this. And tears would literally come to Reagan’s eyes when this program (to which he was very committed) brought negotiations to a standstill.

There’s a famous photo where they’re saying goodbye in Reykjavik, and Reagan says, “I didn’t ask you for much. You could at least do this and consent to the deployment of the missile-defense systems.” And Gorbachev answered him, “I did everything I could. I can’t do anything more for you, or for anybody else.” The exchange happened right there in the car, when they were saying their goodbyes. It was hardly a picnic, of course.

Generally speaking, it was under Gorbachev and Bush that we managed the actual process of reducing nuclear weapons and dramatically slowing down the missile-defense system. The Americans abandoned a lot of the aspects of this program: kinetic weapons in orbit, laser space stations. Reagan had believed in those things. Few people believed in them, but he did.

In those years, Gorbachev managed to seize the initiative and effectively become the world’s leading peacemaker in the public’s eyes.

Reagan had to advocate various disarmament ideas in order to keep pace. Do you remember this competition between them? 

Everyone wants to look like a peacemaker. [In the summer of 1985], in the eyes of a large part of the international community, when we announced a moratorium on the deployment of new missiles to Europe, the Americans really did look as if they weren’t for peace, but for an arms race, and maybe even for war. This put them in a difficult position.

And later, when we said, okay, you’ve finished your missile deployment program, and we’ve finished ours, and now let’s withdraw all these missiles. This, I think, was really a difficult moment for Reagan. Kissinger was against it. Thatcher was against it. Everyone said it was unthinkable to remove all American missiles. They said the U.S. had to leave some in place. But we felt, based on certain technical details, that the Americans were afraid of looking like the instigators. And then they began to make concessions.

At some point, we managed to negotiate the elimination of missiles in the West German arsenal that had the range to reach the USSR. The original U.S. position was: These aren’t our missiles. Negotiate with the West Germans. We said: We’re negotiating with America. We’re not going to negotiate with West Germany. In the end, [then Chancellor Helmut] Kohl announced in August 1987: We’re scrapping these missiles. He made this announcement under U.S. pressure, I think, though he wanted it himself. This was in August 1987.

Then it became clear to me that the agreement [eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range missiles] would be signed. Nevertheless, negotiations about the technical issues of the document continued until the very end. The delegation in Geneva was literally working until four in the morning. They were literally sending one telegram after another: They’d agreed to this issue, there was a proposal about this issue, and if they didn’t get an answer in two hours, they’d assume that it was acceptable. It was literally at that pace.

There was no talk of German reunification?

No. There was Reagan’s famous statement that he made in Berlin: “Mr. Reagan, tear down this wall.” Naturally, Gorbachev couldn’t tear down the wall, but by ‘89, when Gorbachev and Bush met in Malta, it was already clear that things were headed at least to regime change in all Central and Eastern European countries, including West Germany. Bush told Gorbachev then: We see what’s happening, and we don’t want to put you in an awkward position. Therefore, Bush said, “I’m not gonna jump on the wall.”

[Bush] said he wouldn’t stage any ritual dances or rub his hands together in celebration. And he kept his word—he really did.

The Russian authorities today usually act on the assumption that regime change in neighboring countries happens under the direction of the United States. Did Gorbachev see things differently back then?

I don’t know. In my opinion, a hundred thousand people wouldn’t attend a demonstration at the bidding of the U.S. State Department. Gorbachev said: If we allow democracy in our country, and if we give our people the right to vote in real elections, then how can we deny the same opportunities to our allies? This was a tough moment, of course. But I have to say that the Politburo supported Gorbachev then.

Putin and Trump met in Helsinki. In September 1990, Gorbachev and Bush met here, as well.

Why did they pick Helsinki specifically?

There was a certain symbolism. Helsinki is a lot closer to Moscow than New York, and when Bush proposed Helsinki it was as if he was making it clear that he was symbolically ready to come most of the way.

I think Trump’s gesture now is roughly the same: purely symbolically, he’s ready to come most of the way to meet Putin. In the end, however, the symbolism is as important as the real substance of the negotiations.

You say that negotiations are often about making certain concessions, but Vladimir Putin apparently believes that concessions are a sign of weakness…

Why? At first, Putin generally took unilateral steps, with China for example, on territorial issues. There have been unilateral steps with America, too. Putin reacted very cautiously and gently to the U.S. exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [in 2001]. It was sometime after 2007 that he took such a hard-line position.

Putin and Trump have a lot in common. They play to win, they’re persistent, and they’re both very goal-oriented. But it’s impossible to play for a one-sided victory in bilateral negotiations—this puts the other side in an awkward position. That’s why you need to try to present what’s happening as a shared victory.

Based on their personalities, this won’t be so easy, but it’s necessary and it’s what they’re interested in. I think diplomats are working toward something like this right now, because domestically both Trump and Putin need a foreign-policy success right now.

Which past top-level meetings would you compare to Monday’s Putin-Trump summit?

Maybe the [Vienna] meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy in June 1961. Unfortunately, that summit was a failure, in part because both Khrushchev and Kennedy were living human beings and both apparently made mistakes. Afterwards, relations quickly disintegrated, instead of improving.

It took the Cuban Missile Crisis for them to realize how close they came to the edge of the abyss. After that, they started the gradual process of improving relations, culminating in the signing of the treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater.

A summit is a very delicate, sensitive thing. When Kennedy and Khrushchev attended the meeting in Vienna, they of course wanted to improve relations. It didn’t happen. Then the Cold War went on, and Mr. Khrushchev allowed himself to make statements like: “You better be more careful with us, because we’re turning out missiles like sausages.” I think he also underestimated Kennedy then, and Kennedy didn’t show the determination and firmness in negotiations that Reagan and Gorbachev later demonstrated.

And it was extremely difficult for them: there were continued spy scandals, American ships were encroaching on our territorial waters, and there was a case where an American asset climbed into some military depot in East Germany and a guard gunned him down. And in that situation, Reagan and Gorbachev showed firmness, not breaking off negotiations, and never cutting communication channels. Kennedy and Khrushchev, unfortunately, both lost it, after the summit failed.

Does that mean you expect [the Trump-Putin] summit to be a failure, too?

No. I just expect… I don’t think they’ll manage to normalize relations, but maybe they can normalize the dialogue. Right now in America there is a very heated domestic political struggle, but I don’t think Trump’s opponents will actively oppose the resumption of a top-level dialogue between Russia and the US. It does them no good. So I don’t think things will come to a complete meltdown.

This interview originally appeared on Meduza and has been excerpted for Quartz.