Tensions High, Expectations Muted As Trump And Putin Meet In Helsinki
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, are hours away from their first solo meeting and the first bilateral summit between leaders of the two countries since April 2010.
Trump and Putin will hold a one-day summit in the Presidential Palace in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on July 16. There will also be talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Trump arrived late on July 15 as dozens of police cordoned off a small area of the capital along the route of his motorcade. Trump waved to a few dozen supporters, while a smattering of boos also greeted the U.S. president.
The meeting comes as U.S.-Russian relations are more tense than at any time since the end of the Cold War, beleaguered by issues such as Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region; Moscow's military, economic, and political encouragement of a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine; Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; and deep disagreements over the civil war in Syria and approaches to constraining Iran's nuclear program.
In addition, Trump signed on to a July 12 joint statement from the leaders of NATO member countries that said Russia's policies "have reduced stability and security" and accused Moscow of "challenging Euro-Atlantic security and stability through hybrid actions, including attempted interference in the election processes..., widespread disinformation campaigns, and malicious cyber activities."
Both sides have been cautious about raising expectations for the Helsinki meeting.
'A Loose Meeting'
Speaking in Brussels on July 12 following the NATO summit, Trump said he hoped the Helsinki talks would improve relations but stressed it would be "just a loose meeting."
"We go into that meeting not looking for so much," Trump said. "We want to find out about Syria."
In an interview with U.S. broadcaster CBS from his golf course in Scotland before leaving for Helsinki, Trump reiterated that he had "low expectations" for the meeting with Putin.
Likewise, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow avoided answering a question about a possible joint statement following the meeting, adding that a "joint communique is not a mandatory attribute of such meetings."
Peskov confirmed the two presidents would hold a joint press conference following their meeting.
According to the announcement about the summit that was issued by the White House on June 28, "the two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues."
The Kremlin statement the same day said that "the two presidents will discuss Russian-U.S. relations and their further development, as well as current international matters."
Trump raised alarm among U.S. allies on June 29 when he was asked whether he might consider recognizing Russia's annexation of Crimea during the Helsinki talks.
"We're going to have to see," Trump said. "I'll talk to him about everything."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders clarified on July 3 that "we do not recognize Russia's attempt to annex Crimea."
"The sanctions against Russia remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to the Ukraine," she added.
Putin has said numerous times that Russia will not discuss Crimea in any international forum.
The two presidents were expected to broach the subject of nuclear arms control, although Trump has been critical of the New START agreement signed in Prague in 2010 by then-presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.
In addition, the two countries have been mired in disputes over compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that was signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington in 1987.
The New START agreement, which expires in 2021, limits the sides to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each. In a telephone conversation with Putin in February 2017, Trump reportedly criticized the agreement as unfavorable for the United States.
Eugene Rumer, a security analyst at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters that Trump might seek to repeat the formula of his June summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which ended with a fairly vague pledge of mutual goodwill.
"They can agree to engage in a robust conversation," he told Reuters. "Similar to what transpired, apparently, in Singapore...the heavy lifting is going to be on the part of the negotiators."
The Helsinki summit will also take place in the shadow of a deeply divided political environment in the United States, where special counsel Robert Mueller is heading an investigation into possibly illegal contacts between Russian agents and figures in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
On July 13, the U.S. Justice Department said a grand jury had charged 12 Russian intelligence officers for their roles in hacking into the U.S. Democratic party and leaking stolen e-mails and other information during the presidential campaign.
Trump said in his CBS interview that he had not given any thought to asking Putin to extradite the intelligence officers, but he later added that "certainly, I'll be asking about [the matter]."
The White House on July 14 had rejected calls from leading members of Congress to cancel the Putin meeting in the wake of the indictments.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) said on July 10 that he was afraid of "what [Trump] will give away" in Helsinki, adding that it was a mistake for Trump to meet one-on-one with "a very, very clever, out-for-himself man like President Putin."
Putin 'Making His Point'
Analysts have said that merely holding the meeting was already a win for Putin, who has had quite limited contacts with Western countries since the Crimea annexation. The last U.S.-Russian summit was scheduled for September 2013 in Moscow, but Obama cancelled it after Russia granted political asylum to U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who had leaked classified information.
"The fact that a Trump-Putin meeting will happen says only one thing: that for all its hysteria, the United States is not able to isolate or ignore Russia," Russian Federation Council member and foreign-policy analyst Aleksei Pushkov told Reuters. "It took a long time for Washington to get that idea, but it got there in the end."
Andrei Kortunov, head of a Russian Foreign Ministry think tank in Moscow, agreed that the talks enable Putin "to make his point that Russia is not isolated, that Russia is a great power, and to some extent that Russia can even claim equal status with the United States, at least in the security field."
Speaking in Brussels on July 12, Trump said he views Putin as a "competitor" rather than as a friend or enemy.
"I think we get along well," Trump said. "But ultimately he's a competitor. He's representing Russia. I'm representing the United States. So in a sense we're competitors, not a question of friend or enemy."
Putin spokesman Peskov said on July 13 that Putin sees Trump "as the president of the United States, a counterpart in the negotiations scheduled for [July 16]."
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