In Washington and throughout the West, leaders are also pressing Trump to hold firm in countering Putin’s intervention in Syria and Ukraine by refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But Trump’s week-long tour through Europe underscored his common ground with Putin more than their differences. In Belgium and in Britain, Trump echoed Putin’s ideological worldview and his political posture — from decrying immigration patterns that the U.S. president said were destroying European culture to assaulting the media as “fake news” and blaming the U.S. “deep state” and a “rigged witch hunt” investigation for the poor condition of U.S.-Russia relations.
And Trump’s recent moves to disrupt America’s traditional alliances, both with trade disputes and rhetorical broadsides, enhance Russia’s position as Putin seeks to expand Moscow’s influence around the world.
Trump landed in Helsinki on Sunday night with what he said were low expectations and an unusually loose agenda for the kind of high-stakes international meeting that typically is tightly scripted and has predetermined outcomes.
But Trump has an uncommon faith in his abilities to wing it on the global stage. In a trio of tweets sent Sunday from Air Force One, he complained that the news media would not give him due credit for the summit.
Scenes from Trump’s second year in office
“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.”
When he departed Washington last week, Trump said meeting with Putin may be “the easiest” part of his trip. And as in last month’s Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he is banking on his personality to forge a lasting bond with Putin that could improve U.S.-Russia relations and solve some of the world’s intractable problems.
“He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him,” Trump told reporters last week in Brussels, previewing his Putin tête-à-tête. “I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor. . . . He’s not my enemy. And hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen.”
In an indication of his friendly posture, Trump said, under prompting in an interview with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor, that he “hadn’t thought” of asking Putin to extradite the 12 Russian agents indicted by the U.S. Justice Department.
Trump went on to blame his predecessor for Russia’s election interference, telling Glor, “They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration,” and adding that the Democratic National Committee “should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked.”
For the Kremlin, blaming former president Barack Obama and the Washington establishment for the world’s ills has been one way to continue winning over Trump.
Ever since Trump’s election victory, Putin has been echoing Trump’s claim that investigations into Russian election interference are sinister efforts to delegitimize and sabotage his presidency by Washington’s Democratic establishment and the “deep state,” a reference to the intelligence and national-security apparatus. Both Trump and Putin have said the investigations are undermining U.S.-Russia relations and preventing progress on Syria and other problems.
“We are well aware of the extent to which the American establishment is being held hostage to stereotypes and is under the heaviest domestic anti-Russian pressure,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week, according to Tass, a Russian state-
controlled news agency.
In Washington, Democratic leaders called on Trump to cancel the summit over last Friday’s indictments. While there is precedent — Obama nixed a Moscow meeting with Putin in 2013 in part because Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, who is accused of illegally leaking U.S. intelligence secrets — Trump decided to go ahead with the meeting.
Trump has pledged to ask Putin whether Russia interfered in the election, though he said he assumes the Russian leader will again deny it.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia is likely to try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, and both Democrats and Republicans have implored Trump to sternly warn him against doing so.
“All patriotic Americans should understand that Putin is not America’s friend, and he is not the president’s buddy,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who recently returned from a visit to Moscow, warned that “the Russians are very prepared to argue on so many issues that they’re not in the wrong.”
On Monday, Putin is likely to try to win concessions by playing to Trump’s eagerness to one-up Obama and reject establishment thinking.
“Trump is the ideal partner for a detente without concessions,” Alexander Baunov, a foreign policy specialist at the independent Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, recently wrote. “He’s an enemy of the same America that is Russia’s adversary.”
One Russian objective, for instance, has been to win a more accommodating approach from Trump on Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which included the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin claims that the Obama administration fomented a pro-Western revolution in Kiev that year in a bid to weaken Russian influence, and that Russia needed to take over Crimea to protect Russian-speaking residents of the Black Sea peninsula.
A top Putin ally in Russia’s parliament, Andrei Klimov, described Trump as a pragmatist with whom Moscow can work productively, in contrast to the “academic idealist” Obama who Klimov said focused on “irrational matters” such as promoting liberalism and democracy in places like Ukraine.
“Trump is a different story,” Klimov said. “Ukraine was a project of Mr. Obama. The project didn’t pan out.”
Trump has kept his options open regarding Crimea. Asked last week whether he intends to recognize Crimea as part of Russia when he meets with Putin, Trump blamed the situation on his predecessor.
“That was on Barack Obama’s watch,” he told reporters. “That was not on Trump’s watch. Would I have allowed it to happen? No.” Trump added, “What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That I can’t tell you.”
European leaders, still shellshocked from Trump’s ambush over defense spending at last week’s NATO meeting, said they fear Trump will legitimize Russia’s claim on Crimea. That, they said, would mean ending sanctions against Russia, blowing up the security response and giving a green light to the redrawing of international borders by force.
“If [European leaders] feel that Trump has dissed them in Brussels and yet embraces Putin and is uncritical of Putin on Monday in Helsinki, that’s very bad optics,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO and senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
At a dinner of NATO leaders last week in Brussels, Trump told fellow presidents and prime ministers that he would talk with Putin about Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, but he went into little detail, according to one official with knowledge of the conversation. Leaders who had dealt with Putin previously recounted their own experiences, being careful not to make it sound as though they were instructing Trump on how to behave, the official said.
Among Trump’s statements that clashed the most with the way America’s main European allies see the world were those on immigration. Standing alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Chequers retreat last week, Trump used language similar to the white-nationalist movement’s to denounce immigration as permanently altering cultures throughout Europe.
“I think they better watch themselves because you are changing culture,” Trump said. “It’s a very sad situation.”
May disagreed, but Trump would find kinship with Putin. The Russian president has described Europe’s immigration policy as “diluting traditional national values.” And Russian state media, like some conservative news outlets in the United States, has been aggressively highlighting security problems and cultural clashes arising from the migration of refugees to Western Europe from Syria and other war-torn places.
Syria will be another top agenda item, officials on both sides have said. Putin has met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with a top Iranian official in recent days, stoking speculation that Putin and Trump could reach an agreement of some kind over the role that Iran, an ally of Russia’s, plays in Syria’s civil war.
“Right now, there’s no trust in the relationship, and because of that, problem-solving is practically impossible,” Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So this is an attempt to see if we can defuse and take some of the drama, and quite frankly some of the danger, out of the relationship right now.”
Monday’s summit is scheduled to start at 6 a.m. Washington time with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto welcoming Putin and Trump at Helsinki’s Presidential Palace, a neoclassical residence facing the Nordic capital’s heavily touristed Baltic Sea waterfront. Trump and Putin will first meet one on one and then be joined by their top advisers for a working lunch. They will conclude their visit with a joint news conference — the first such joint news event between an American and Russian president since 2010.
Russian officials say it was Trump who insisted on holding a one-on-one meeting with Putin to start Monday’s talks. But some of them haven’t hidden their anticipation that such a format will produce desired results.
“When he’s not under pressure from his own administration, his own ministers, his own lawmakers, I believe Trump is able to talk to Russia far more constructively than we can all imagine,” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said in a radio interview.
Within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, there is considerable concern that Trump is meeting with Putin without the presence of advisers or note-takers. Some Russia experts fear Trump is a relative novice and will be taken advantage of by Putin, a former KGB agent.
“Putin is now meeting his fourth U.S. president,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “He has been working on foreign affairs at the highest levels for two decades and at lower levels his whole life. He knows all the possible agenda items much better than Trump does. So why give the Russian side such an advantage?”
Seung Min Kim in Helsinki and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.