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Saturday 25 January 2020

Trump readies for Putin face-to-face in Finland

The meeting follows the US indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 presidential election.

Vladimir Putin has arrived in Helsinki (AP)
Vladimir Putin has arrived in Helsinki (AP)

By Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin and Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press

Donald Trump will meet Vladimir Putin amid fraying Western alliances and developments in the investigation into Russian meddling in the US presidential election.

The meeting has already been condemned by members of Congress from both parties after the US indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Mr Trump’s presidential campaign.

But the US president is undeterred and is set to meet face-to-face with Mr Putin.

Mr Trump, who has been trying to lower expectations about what the meeting will achieve, told reporters during a breakfast with Finland’s president that he thought the summit would go “fine”.

Trump met with the president of Finland for breakfast (Emmi Korhonen/Lehtikuva via AP)

The meeting comes amid speculation about whether Mr Trump will rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompted a special counsel probe that he has repeatedly labelled a witch hunt.

Mr Trump continued to undermine the investigation in a series of tweets from Helsinki before the meeting, blaming it for fraying US-Russian relations.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” he wrote, blaming “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

He also continued to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election in his favour, claiming that when Mr Obama “was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it”.

The Obama administration did take action, including confronting Mr Putin in person as well as expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats the US said were actually intelligence operatives and imposing new sanctions.

While Mr Trump was eager for a made-for-TV spectacle that will dominate headlines like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the Kremlin’s primary mission was simply to have the summit happen.

Mr Putin arrived late for the meeting – another display of the Russian’s leader famous lack of punctuality.

His plane touched down in Helsinki 30 minutes later than planned, pushing back the start of the talks. In the past, Mr Putin has been late for meetings with the Queen and Pope Francis, among many others.

In 2014, he was hours late for a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, after his previous stop in Serbia lasted longer than usual.

Often seen as a trick to throw his interlocutors off balance, Mr Putin’s tardy ways appear to be more of a personal trait than a well-calculated strategy.

Mr Putin hopes the meeting, which comes hours after he presided over the World Cup final, will help him forge good personal ties with Mr Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and Washington may be able to find common ground, such as Syria.

Vladimir Putin presided over the World Cup final on Sunday (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

The two leaders first meet one-on-one in the Finnish presidential palace’s opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room. The leaders will then take questions at a press conference.

Mr Putin is not likely to be aiming for official recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling US sanctions, aware that Congress would never allow such action.

But he would welcome a symbolic end to Western protests over Crimea and Moscow’s attempts to destabilise elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.

Mr Trump unleashed his own attacks on those institutions before arriving in Finland.

In an interview with US TV network CBS, Mr Trump described the European Union as a “foe”.

The attack followed Mr Trump’s appearance at a Nato summit in Brussels, where he criticised traditional allies over “delinquent” defence spending only to later confirm his commitment to the military alliance.

“Nato is now strong & rich!” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday morning. During his breakfast, he said Nato had “never been more together” and said the summit had been “a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love”.

Meanwhile, US first lady Melania Trump said she and her Finnish counterpart had a “good conversation about issues facing our nations”.

Mrs Trump said in a tweet that she enjoyed Monday’s talk, adding: “Thank you to @JenniHaukio for hosting me!”

Mrs Haukio is the wife of Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland. The first ladies met separately over breakfast while their husbands held talks.

Meanwhile, the Finnish tabloid Iltalehti took the American first lady to task with a front-page photo tweaking her for an alleged “breach of etiquette” because she walked off of Air Force One in front of President Trump after they landed at the airport in Helsinki.

PA Media

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