HELSINKI, Finland — After months of anticipation, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet Monday to put to the test the US president’s ambition to forge a personal bond with the Kremlin chief and find common ground on an array of issues that have pitted the powers on opposite sides of the battlefield.
If Trump’s instinct is right and he makes a connection with Putin, then the pair’s Helsinki Summit may take the heat out of some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
But the Washington-Moscow rivalry has a long history and there are there many points of friction that could yet spoil Trump’s hoped-for beautiful friendship.
With the foes at loggerheads over Syria, Ukraine, pipeline policy, espionage and election interference, even Trump cautioned: “I’m not going with high expectations.”
The brash billionaire property magnate has been president for 18 months, while the 65-year-old former KGB officer has run Russia for the past 18 years.
The 72-year-old president nevertheless has a high opinion of his ability to woo tough opponents, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom he met at a summit last month.
“I think it’s a good thing to meet. I do believe in meetings,” Trump insisted in an interview with CBS News that aired before he touched down in Helsinki.
In the same interview, Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals.
The Kremlin has also played down hopes that the odd couple will emerge from their first formal one-on-one summit having resolved the issues poisoning relations.
Putin, who played host at the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday and was due to arrive in Finland later Monday, has remained terse in the run up to the summit.
But on Friday his adviser Yuri Ushakov also played down expectations, saying: “The state of bilateral relations is very bad…. We have to start to set them right.”
A Syrian deal
High on the agenda will be Syria, with Israel hoping Washington will back its effort to garner Kremlin support for removing Iran’s presence from the country.
Despite the doubts of his top national security advisers, Trump is keen to withdraw his own troops from eastern Syria, where they have been battling the Islamic State.
Reports suggest he may seek a deal that Russia work with Israel to contain Iran’s influence, in exchange for allowing Putin’s ally Bashar Assad to stay in power.
A deal like that could free up US troops to withdraw, but would also — as with Crimea — mark a major victory for Putin and a betrayal of local US allies on the ground.
On Sunday, Trump national security adviser John Bolton said US troops would only remain so long as the Islamic State and Iran were threats.
“The president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”
Israel reportedly already agreed to such a formulation when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Putin last week and clarified publicly that Israel has no issue with Assad.
Netanyahu said Sunday he had also discussed the issue with Trump a day earlier.
On Sunday night, Syrian state media accused Israel of hitting a base near Aleppo, reportedly used by Iranian militia fighters and their proxies, in what could be interpreted as a signal that Jerusalem does not intend to scale back its air campaign no matter the outcome of the meeting.
Giving up ground?
The West, watching the summit anxiously after a week in which Trump threatened to up-end a summit of the NATO allies, may be relieved if not much comes of the Helsinki meeting.
Many fear that Trump — in his eagerness to prove that he was right to seek the summit with Putin despite Russia’s often hostile stance — may give up too much ground.
In the run-up to talks, Trump has refused to personally commit to the US refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, leaving open the possibility of a climb-down.
If Washington were to de facto accept Russia’s 2014 land-grab, this would break with decades of US policy send tremors through NATO’s exposed eastern flank.
Trump’s critics in Washington will be watching this — and also how he handles the growing evidence that Russian agents intervened in America’s 2016 presidential race.
Last week US special prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted 12 more Russian intelligence officers for allegedly hacking Trump rival Hillary Clinton’s computer server.
There will be outrage at home if Trump does not confront Putin over the scandal, but the mercurial US leader would not say whether he would demand the suspects’ extradition.
“Well, I might. I hadn’t thought of that. But I certainly…. I’ll be asking about it,” Trump told CBS.
Senior diplomat and now chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass said that for centuries world order has depended on “non-interference in the internal affairs of others and respect for sovereignty.”
“Russia has violated this norm by seizing Crimea and by interfering in the 2016 US election. We must deal with Putin’s Russia as the rogue state it is,” he tweeted.
Cheers and jeers
As with other high level meetings, Trump will be paying close attention to how it is covered, but indicated Sunday he did not expect to win over the Washington media and foreign policy establishment.
In a bitter tweet sent as he flew between his golf resort in Scotland to the Finnish capital, he said even if he was handed the keys to Moscow “it would not be good enough.”
Heading to Helsinki, Finland – looking forward to meeting with President Putin tomorrow. 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…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 15, 2018
Helsinki may not be impressed either.
On the eve of the summit, more than 2,000 people denounced Trump and Putin and hailed human rights, press freedom and dissent as they marched in the city’s Senate Square.
Trump landed in Helsinki late Sunday. He planned no public appearances until Monday, when he heads to the Presidential Palace for breakfast with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. Trump and Putin meet later Monday at the palace.
The president flew in from Scotland, where he and his wife, Melania, spent the weekend at a golf resort he owns there.
As he neared his hotel, several dozen supporters sporting “Make America Great Again” caps waved American flags and cheered.
Dozens of police cordoned off a small area Sunday night at an intersection along the route of Trump’s motorcade near the posh waterfront hotel where he and Melania are staying.
The Trump fans, several from the True Finn anti-immigration party, said they wanted to make a show of support in a country where many people have criticized his policies.
A few scattered boos rang out from across the road.
Trump and his wife waved at the supporters, two of whom held up a handwritten banner that read “God Bless D & M Trump.”
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.