U.S. President Donald Trump set the scene for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin by blaming fraught relations with Moscow on investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election that put him in the White House.
Trump is to meet Putin in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on July 16 for their first solo meeting and the first bilateral summit between leaders of the two countries since April 2010.
Trump and Putin will hold the one-day summit in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, first meeting one-on-one and then with other officials present. There will also be talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!" Trump tweeted on July 16, referring to U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe.
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 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."
During a breakfast meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto before the meeting with Putin, Trump appeared positive. Asked what he would say to Putin, Trump said: "We’ll be just fine, thank you."
Trump also said at the breakfast meeting that "NATO’s never been stronger" and "NATO has never been more together" after the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels, where he said alliance members agreed to speed up increasing their defense spending following criticisms he made at the meeting.
‘No Clear Agenda’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s RT TV station ahead of the summit that Moscow did not expect an easy meeting.
"Of course Syria will be discussed by the two presidents," said Peskov. "We all know what Washington thinks of Iran. But at the same time Iran is a good partner to us in terms of trade, economic cooperation, and political dialogue. So this will not be an easy exchange of views."
Russia hoped however that the summit would be "the first step" in overcoming a crisis in relations, he said.
"Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well,” added Peskov. “There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along."
The Helsinki summit will also take place in the shadow of a deeply divided political environment in the United States, where 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 emails and other information during the presidential campaign.
The White House on July 14 rejected calls from leading members of Congress to cancel the meeting with Putin in the wake of the indictments, which have increased domestic pressure on Trump to take a tough stance with the Russian president on the alleged meddling.
Trump arrived in Helsinki 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.
Both sides have been cautious about raising expectations for the Helsinki 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.
Trump also said he views Putin as a "competitor" rather than as a friend or enemy.
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 "the two presidents will discuss Russian-U.S. relations and their further development, as well as current international matters."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
Source: Radio Free Europe