HELSINKI – President Donald Trump will hold a summit Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He has said he has “low expectations” for the meeting but he is under pressure to confront Putin over alleged interference by Moscow in the 2016 presidential election.
Here is what to watch for:
Putin has repeatedly denied intervention by Moscow in the 2016 election and Trump has often taken the denials at face value. But he faces further pressure to confront Putin after a federal grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents in a plot to hack into the emails of Democratic campaign officials and leak those emails via Russian-sponsored web sites. That’s on top of more than a dozen Russians previously indicted for conspiracy, wire fraud and identity theft as part of an effort to spread propaganda through social media sites.
“Your first request of Vladimir Putin needs to be, tell us which airport we can pick up the 25 Russians that tried to interfere with the fundamentals of our democracy,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” when discussing what he thought Trump’s message should be.
The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, so aides said it’s unlikely that the president would seek to get Russia to turn over the intelligence agents indicted last week. “I think it’s pretty silly for the president to demand something that he can’t get legally,’’ National Security Adviser John Bolton said on ABC’s This Week.
After Russia moved its military into Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States and other nations instituted a series of economic sanctions against Russia that remain in place over Putin’s protests.
In Brussels last week, Trump signaled that U.S. recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory was not out of the question. He suggested that Russian investments on the peninsula might weigh in Russia’s favor.
“You know, people like to say, ‘Oh, Crimea.’ But the fact is, they built bridges to Crimea. They just opened a big bridge that was started years ago. They built, I think, a submarine port; substantially added billions of dollars,” Trump said.
Official U.S. policy has been that Russia’s armed annexation of the peninsula violated international law and should not be recognized by the rest of the world. European allies are looking for a strong and unequivocal statement that economic sanctions will remain in place until Russia restores the region to Ukrainian control.
For the most part, Putin needs more from the United States than the United States needs from Russia. But one exception may be in Syria, where Russia continues to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Trump has ordered two airstrikes against Syrian targets since he’s been president, each time careful not to hit Russian assets that could escalate the situation.
But he has said he would like Russian cooperation – not just to prevent the Syrian government from using chemical weapons and committing other atrocities against its people, but also in combating remaining Islamic State forces in the region.
For most of the Cold War, U.S.-Russian summits were dominated by the issue of nuclear weapons, with Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan reaching a series of incremental agreements to limit the number, size and location of each side’s nuclear arsenal.
One of those treaties, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, will expire in the next two years. But the United States has accused the Russians of violating it and will seek verifiable commitments before renewing the agreement.
Meanwhile, Trump is pushing NATO allies to vastly increase spending on conventional defense forces in Western and Central Europe, and the alliance has been conducting joint military exercises in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea. Russia sees those war games as provocative and would like to see them stop – something else that Trump has not ruled out.
Trump’s diplomatic style is influenced by his decades of deal-making as much as his briefing books, and personal relationships as much as national interests.
He’s also a practitioner of what might be described as photo-op diplomacy, using flattery, insults, and body language in his international relations toolbox.
So every gesture – the length and firmness of the handshake, their distance during talks and their every facial expression – will likely be analyzed for clues about the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
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