US President Donald Trump said he hopes for an “extraordinary relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the two leaders met briefly in front of media on Monday ahead of their historic one-on-one meeting.
“Most importantly we have a lot of good things to talk about,” Trump said after opening his remarks in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. The US president said he and Putin would talk about “everything from trade to military to missiles to China.”
The Russian president for his part said it was time to talk about relations between Moscow and Washington.
In the run-up to the summit, both sides talked down the Monday event, with Trump telling CBS on Sunday that he was going in with “low expectations.”
John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, said on ABC that the United States was not looking for “deliverables,” and that the meeting was going to be void of any specific structure.
US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman also downplayed expectations, saying the two leaders were merely going to have a “conversation” rather than a “summit.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s RT TV station on Sunday that he did not hold high expectations for the meeting either.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, tried to stay positive and hoped for the meeting to be constructive.
Trump is going to the meeting after sowing doubt over the past week about Washington’s commitment to old allies during a high-profile summit of the NATO military alliance in Brussels and his maiden state visit to the UK.
Trump has stepped up his war of words with the European Union over trade, calling the bloc “a foe.”
Trump has long criticized NATO members for their refusal to commit two percent of their GDPs to defense and putting the burden on the US.
He has threatened to leave the alliance and pull all American forces out of Europe, leaving them exposed to a Russia that European leaders think is getting more aggressive.
This is while ever since entering the White House in January 2017 and before that as a candidate, Trump has been reluctant to take a harsh stance against Putin, raising suspicions in and out the US that he would be willing to make concessions in the Monday meeting for better ties with the Russian leader.
Hours before the meeting, Trump posted a tweet, blaming past administrations and the ongoing investigations into his alleged “collusion” with Russia for the current state of relations with Moscow.
Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election that saw Trump beat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most important issue that both sides of the political isle are asking Trump to raise in the meeting.
Trump has been specifically asked to push for the extradition of 12 Russian agents, who US intelligence agencies claim orchestrated a series of hacking attacks that tipped the scale in Trump’s favor during his face-off with Clinton.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Trump told a CBS interview on Sunday, crushing hopes for such an agreement during the upcoming talks.
Russia has time and again denied the allegations on interfering in other countries’ democratic process, dismissing them as part of a “Russophobia” campaign run by the West.
UK poisoning case
The American head of state is also under pressure to bring up the poisoning in April of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK.
London insists that Moscow was behind the attack, which British experts say was carried out by deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok and led to major fallout in ties between the two sides.
The UK and several of its allies subsequently fired Russian diplomats, a move that prompted retaliatory measures by the Kremlin.
The Russian envoy to the UN warns that London will be “sorry” for linking the Skripal attack to Russia.
US intel report outlines Putin’s possible demands
Meanwhile, a US intelligence report has provided a look into the key issues that Putin is likely to raise during the summit.
The intelligence report, according to sources who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the Russian leader may ask Trump to stay out of the conflict in Ukraine, to withdraw troops from eastern Syria, and to continue talks with North Korea.
Crisis in Ukraine
Russia and the West have long locked horns over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Moscow forces have been clashing with the Ukrainian army.
The deadly conflict has taken a turn for the worse due to America’s insistence on providing the government of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko with anti-tank missiles and other heavy weaponry.
The US and its allies have also imposed sanctions on Russia over the conflict, which in 2014 saw the Crimean Peninsula reintegrate into Russia following a popular referendum.
Washington has also directed the NATO military alliance to deploy troops and weaponry in the Baltic Region, near Russia’s Western borders. The organization cut its ties with Moscow in 2014.
Trump and Putin are also expected to exchange views on the crisis in Syria, with a focus on the withdrawal of foreign forces from the Arab country.
Both Russia and the US have had a military presence in Syria over the past years, but for completely different reasons.
While Russia has sent fighter jets and military personnel to assist Damascus in its fight against terrorist groups on a request from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the US has been running its own aerial and ground operations with a declared goal of eliminating terrorists.
American forces have established bases in eastern Syria, where they are believed to be training anti-Assad militiamen. Washington has warned Moscow and Damascus against approaching areas under its control in Syria.
Meanwhile, the US has also called for the pullout of Iranian military advisors as well as fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah resistance movement, who are helping the national Syrian army in its counter-terrorism operations.
Syria says, however, that the presence of Iran and Hezbollah, which comes at the request of the legitimate government in Damascus, is not up for discussions.
Moscow has also said Iran should not withdraw from the Arab country until the elimination of all terrorists.
Tehran has expressed readiness to continue its anti-terror mission in Syria as long as the Damascus government wants it to do so.
North Korea talks
Trump thinks he has made progress in his push for North Korea’s denuclearization after a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month.
While neither side has yet shown willingness to bow to demands they have put forward, the international community has supported the diplomatic efforts over the threats of an all-out nuclear war that Trump and Kim exchanged last year.
Russia, as a key supporter of the rapprochement, has called for the revival of a six-party effort by the two Koreas, Russia, Japan, China and the US to end North Korea’s nuclear program, nearly 10 years after its collapse in 2009.