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Trump hails ‘very good relationship’ with Putin, tells him ‘don’t meddle in election’

President Donald Trump meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, July 7, 2017. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Donald Trump has hailed his “very, very good relationship” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, but warned him not to “meddle” in the upcoming U.S. election as the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Japan on June 28.

Trump delivered an optimistic tone as he began his first meeting with his Russian counterpart in a year amid a growing list of fractious bilateral and international issues.

“We have a very, very good relationship,” Trump told journalists as he sat down with Putin in Osaka.

The meeting is their first meeting since a U.S. federal investigation documented extensive evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, an accusation which Putin has denied.

Trump, after being prodded by a journalist, told Putin, “Don’t meddle in the election, please,” with a smirk on his face, and later turned to the Russian leader to make an inaudible remark.

The meeting is also the two leaders’ first face-to-face discussion since a Helsinki summit in July during which Trump refused to allow any advisers to join him and whose details he declined to share with Congress.

Putin said the meeting is a good opportunity to continue the bilateral dialogue. “We have things to discuss,” he said curtly.

The meeting was scheduled to last 60 to 90 minutes. The presidents also exchanged a few phrases earlier in the day as they prepared to take a group photo.

The two leaders were expected to touch on issues ranging from nuclear treaty withdrawal to conflict in eastern Ukraine, sanctions against Iran and unrest in Venezuela. Their meeting comes as relations between the two nations have tumbled to a post-Cold War low even as the leaders profess good personal ties.

Trump canceled his last planned meeting with Putin at the G20 in Argentina in November after Russia seized two Ukrainian vessels and their crew in the Sea of Azov. The two though did speak briefly on the sidelines of that event.

In an interview with the Financial Times published June 27, Putin said he did not “expect any breakthroughs or landmark decisions” during his meetings in Osaka.

“There is hope that during these general discussions and bilateral meetings, we will be able to smooth out the existing disagreements and lay a foundation, a basis for positive movement forward,” Putin said.

The two leaders will likely “primarily” discuss arms control, said Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, and now director of the Europe and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“This is where President Putin would like to see this [bilateral] conversation because it is where Russia is of equal strength to the United States,” Conley said June 21. “There is a massive space here to think about arms control, yet there is no process that we are aware of.”

Nuclear Weapons

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is set to expire in August after the U.S. accused Russia of noncompliance and withdrew from the deal, leading Moscow to follow suit.

The New START treaty, which puts caps on offensive nuclear armaments, is due to expire in 2021 unless the two countries agree on an extension. Trump’s administration is considering creating a new treaty that includes China.

Putin reiterated to the FT that Russia hasn’t seen any interest from the United States to extend the New START treaty.

“If we do not begin talks now, it would be over because there would be no time even for formalities,” he said.

The U.S. and Russia are also at loggerheads over Iran and Venezuela, where the situation has deteriorated over the past several months. Both Tehran and Caracas are allies of the Kremlin.

Trump is seeking the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro as the South American nation’s economy spirals out of control. He has called on Russia to end support for Maduro’s regime.

“There will be pure chaos. How could they [U.S.] act like this?” Putin told the FT about regime change in Venezuela.