Helsinki: With rattled world capitals watching, President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are ready to go one-on-one in a summit that plays out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the investigation into Russian election meddling and fears that Moscow’s aggression may go unchallenged.
Today’s meeting was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the US indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump’s presidential campaign.
Undeterred, the American president is set to go face-to-face with Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.
Trump, who has been trying to lower expectations about what the meeting will achieve, told reporters during a breakfast today morning with Finland’s president that he thought the summit would go “fine”.
The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompting a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labelled a witch hunt.
Trump continued to undermine the investigation in a series of tweets from Helsinki before the meeting, blaming it for fraying US-Russian relations. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” he wrote, blaming “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
He also continued to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election in his favour, claiming that when Obama “was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it.”
While Trump was eager for a made-for-TV spectacle that will dominate headlines like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the Kremlin’s primary mission was simply to have the summit happen.
Putin hopes the meeting, mere hours after he presided over the World Cup finals, will help him forge good personal ties with Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and Washington may be able to find common ground, such as Syria.
The two leaders first meet one-on-one in the Finnish presidential palace’s opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room.
The leaders will then take questions at a press conference before going their separate ways.
Putin will likely not be shooting for official recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling US sanctions, aware that the US Congress would never allow such action. But he would welcome a symbolic end to Western protests over Crimea and Moscow’s attempts to destabilise elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.
Trump unleashed his own attacks on those very institutions before arriving in Finland.
In an interview with CBS that aired yesterday, Trump described the European Union, a bloc of nations that includes many of America’s closest allies, as a “foe”.
Ahead of his sit-down with with Putin, who has cracked down on the free press, Trump has continued to unleash a series of attacks on the media, including as Air Force One descended into Helsinki.
“Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!” Trump tweeted. “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how to do is resist and obstruct!”
Trump also said in the CBS interview that he had given no thought to asking Putin to extradite the dozen Russian military intelligence officers indicted this past week in on charges related to the hacking of Democratic targets.
But after being asked about that by his interviewer, Trump said “certainly I’ll be asking about it” although extradition is highly unlikely.
The US doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Moscow and can’t force the Russians to hand over citizens. Russia’s constitution also prohibits turning over citizens to foreign governments. Putin is likely to strongly reaffirm his denial of any meddling and cast the US charges as unfounded.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected last week’s indictment as part of a “shameful comedy” staged by those in the US who try to prevent the normalisation of Russia-US ties, arguing that it doesn’t contain evidence to back the accusations.
On Syria, a possible deal could see Moscow helping mediate the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies from the areas alongside Syria’s border with Israel a diplomatic coup that would reflect Russia’s carefully cultivated ties with both Israel and Iran.
While both Putin and Trump spoke about the need to discuss arms control issues, they are unlikely to make any quick deals. They may underline the importance of continuing the discussions, setting the stage for discussions on expert level. (AP)