Trump and Putin meet at closely watched Helsinki summit 0

US President Donald Trump is sitting down with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki, Finland on Monday for a meeting that comes amid heightened tensions with Europe and an ongoing inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The US and Russian leaders opened the historic summit on Monday with Trump promising an “extraordinary relationship” and Putin saying it was high time they thrashed out disputes around the world.

Looking sombre, they exchanged opening remarks in front of reporters before their closed-door meeting. Trump underlined his sentiment that getting along with Russia would be “a good thing, not a bad thing”. Putin, for his part, said, “The time has come to talk in a substantive way about our relations and problem areas of the world.”

Hours before his first ever summit with Putin, Trump had said that “US foolishness” was responsible for Washington’s poor relationship with Moscow.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” he tweeted from Helsinki on Monday morning, blaming “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

Trump’s comments showed how much domestic political pressure he is under over the summit. Critics and his own advisers have urged him to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his country’s role in the 2016 election and other “malign” activities.

On Friday, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.

Yet Trump has refused to criticise Putin, instead focusing his frustration over US-Russian ties on his own country. His stance has raised questions back at home, with Clinton tweeting: “Great World Cup. Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?”

Despite the criticism, Trump appeared upbeat during a breakfast with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö just hours before his meeting with Putin. Asked what he would say to Putin, Trump said: “We’ll do just fine, thank you.”

The two leaders were expected to first meet one-on-one with only their interpreters, followed by a working lunch accompanied by advisers, and a joint news conference.

A win for Russia

Neither side expects major breakthroughs from the talks and the outcome is uncertain given sharp differences between Washington and Moscow over everything from Syria to Ukraine.

For Putin, the fact that the summit is even happening despite Russia’s semi-pariah status among some Americans and US allies is a geopolitical win because, in Russian eyes, it shows that Washington recognises Moscow as a great power that cannot be isolated or ignored.

The Kremlin made clear beforehand it did not expect an easy meeting, taking Trump to task over his criticism of a planned Russian gas pipeline to Germany and suggesting it would be hard to find common ground on Syria because of differences over Iran.

Russia hoped however that the summit would be “the first step” in overcoming a crisis in relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s RT TV station. “Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well,” said Peskov. “There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along.”

Trump wants Russia to use its influence in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad militarily, to push Iranian and Iranian-allied forces out.

“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.”

Trump has predicted he will be accused of being too soft on Putin no matter how the summit goes. “If I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia…I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!” he tweeted on Sunday.

He has said he will raise the issue of Russian election meddling, but does not expect to get anywhere.

The Helsinki summit is the capstone to a nearly week-long trip for Trump, during which he has sown doubts over his commitment to the NATO military alliance, undermined the US’s so-called special relationship with Britain, and denigrated the European Union as a trade “foe”.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)