HELSINKI, FINLAND - A summit between the leaders of the United States and Russia, scheduled Monday for this Baltic port city, appears to have no firm goals. But it is expected that U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss a wide range of issues, from nuclear arms reduction to the war in Syria, in which Washington and Moscow back opposing forces.
“That would be a tremendous achievement if we could do something on nuclear proliferation,” Trump told reporters alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday.
Ahead of the encounter with Putin, the U.S. president is spending two days at his private club in Turnberry, Scotland, for “meetings, calls and hopefully, some golf — my primary form of exercise!” he said in a Saturday tweet:
Looming over the summit is Friday’s indictment of 12 Russians charged with hacking the Democrats ahead of the 2016 presidential election won by Trump.
The indictment alleges that members of the Russian military agency GRU stole data from the computer networks of Democratic Party organizations and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“The goal of the conspirators was to have an impact on the election,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters Friday. Before the indictment was announced, Trump vowed to raise the issue of Russian meddling in U.S. elections with Putin.
“I will absolutely firmly ask the question,” the president said Friday in England.
A day after the indictment was returned, Trump, on Twitter, blamed the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, for not taking action, “especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September,” two months before the 2016 election:
Trump linked the federal government investigation of Russian interference to the “Deep State,” (a reference to an unproven conspiracy of a clandestine network among government bureaucrats and intelligence agencies).
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has now indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people, including four former Trump advisers, and three Russian companies. Trump terms the investigation a “rigged witch hunt.”
A number of top Democrats implored the president to call off the summit with Putin because of the latest indictments.
One Republican U.S. senator, who has differed with Trump on several critical issues during his presidency, also echoed that call.
“President Trump must be willing to confront Putin from a position of strength and demonstrate that there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression towards the United States and democracies around the world,” said John McCain, chairman of the Senate’s armed services committee, in a statement. “If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward.”
White House officials with the president in Scotland said there is no chance of a cancelation.
While host Finland is a partner in the West’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is not a full-fledged member of the defense pact.
Independent from neighboring Russia for the past century, Finland — despite being a member of the European Union — maintains a pragmatic relationship with its larger neighbor while expanding its ties with the West, making it a fitting venue for a summit between Trump and Putin.
“Finland is one of those countries that both the United States and Russia appreciates,” explained Finnish Defense Forces Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo, a professor of war studies at the Finnish National Defense University. “It’s not involved in many of these most intense struggles between Russia and the West.”
Finland shares a 1,300-kilometer (800 miles) border with Russia. It, along with NATO’s new member states on the eastern flank, are increasingly worried about Trump’s critical comments about the alliance and will be nervously watching the summit between Trump and Putin, according to Raitasalo.
The two leaders, according to diplomatic sources, before wider talks involving aides, are set to meet one-on-one, with only interpreters present, for 30 minutes to an hour.
NATO members “are really worried, understandably so,” Raitasalo told VOA, adding that the Helsinki talks “could open up new negotiations on a lower level that could actually achieve something. But I think it could take time. In most cases, a couple of hours between heads of states that haven’t seen each other for a time and discussed things properly, you can’t achieve much in several hours. But it could be a good start.”
According to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, “Putin wants a lovefest.”
In a tweet, McFaul said, “To achieve victory, all Putin needs is for Trump to say nice things about him and signal that he wants to move on and forget about Russia’s past belligerent actions over the last three years.”
VOA correspondent Bill Gallo contributed to this report.