U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down Monday at their Helsinki summit with an array of complex issues to discuss.
Whether the leaders of the world's two foremost nuclear superpowers would resolve any of their disagreements was an open question as they began their first extensive face-to-face talks since Trump assumed power nearly 18 months ago. Trump is the fourth U.S. president Putin has engaged with.
It was not known which issues might draw particular attention as they first talk alone, accompanied only by their translators, and later over lunch with additional key aides. Here are some of the contentious issues that have soured relations between the United States and Russia:
- Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and Moscow's support for pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. The United States and European allies have imposed economic sanctions against Russia for the takeover of Crimea. Trump has not lifted the sanctions, but at times blamed his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for Russia's incursion into its Soviet-era satellite.
"President Obama lost Crimea, because President Putin didn't respect President Obama," Trump said last month.
- Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump. Putin has often denied meddling in the U.S. vote and Trump regularly disparages the 14-month investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian links with his campaign as a "witch hunt." Three days before the summit, a U.S. grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials on charges of hacking into thousands of emails written by Democratic political opponents of Trump and arranging their release through WikiLeaks.
Trump has said he will raise the election interference issue with Putin, but it is unclear how extensively he plans to press the Russian leader. Just hours before the summit, Trump said on Twitter, "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"
- Warfare in Syria and the involvement of Russia and the United States in the Middle East country is at stake in the Helsinki talks. Russia has propped up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with aerial attacks on insurgents fighting unsuccessfully to overthrow Assad. The United States has troops in Syria fighting Islamic State terrorists. Trump has said he wants to bring them home, but is also wary of continued Iranian forces in the Syria supporting Assad.
- Trump has talked about de-escalating the nuclear arms race and has raised the possibility of starting new talks with Russia over reducing their nuclear arsenals. It is unclear whether Putin would agree.
- The U.S. is engaged separately in trying to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and Trump won a vague promise from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at last month's Singapore summit to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But details on the when and how this would occur have yet to be set. Trump could enlist Putin's help in pushing Pyongyang to act.
- China is the world's second biggest economy, behind the United States, and has engaged in a tit-for-tat imposition of new tariffs. Perhaps more importantly for U.S.-Russia relations, Beijing has also advanced its military presence in the South China Sea. How Trump and Putin might address these issues is uncertain.
- Accused U.S. spy Edward Snowden, a former government contractor who stole thousands of National Security Agency documents five years ago and released them to the world, remains living in Russia with Putin's ascent. Trump has called Snowden a traitor, although some in the United States view him as a hero for exposing the extent of U.S. surveillance operations. Trump could demand Snowden's return to stand trial on espionage charges, although no one knows how Putin might react to such a request.