Helsinki―US President Donald Trump headed into a summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday, determined to overcome diplomatic tensions and forge a personal bond with the Kremlin chief.
If Trump’s instinct proves right and the pair find common ground, then the Helsinki summit may take the heat out of some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
But the Washington-Moscow rivalry has rarely been more bitter and there are many points of friction that could yet spoil Trump’s hoped-for friendship.
Trump began the day’s talks by meeting with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, who has lent his harbor-front palace for the occasion.
But first he took a moment to fire a Twitter broadside at his domestic opponents, blaming the diplomatic chill on the investigation into Russian election meddling.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted.
After a stormy NATO summit in Brussels last week, Trump was accused by critics of cozying up to Putin while undermining the alliance.
But, over breakfast with Niinisto, he insisted NATO “has never been stronger” and “never been more together” thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.
With Washington and Moscow at loggerheads over Syria, Ukraine and election interference, even Trump has cautioned that he is not approaching the Putin summit “with high expectations”.
The brash billionaire property magnate has been president for 18 months, while the 65-year-old former KGB officer has run Russia for the past 18 years.
But the 72-year-old US leader nevertheless has a high opinion of his ability to woo tough opponents, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom he met at a summit last month.
“I think it’s a good thing to meet. I do believe in meetings,” Trump insisted in an interview with CBS News that aired before he touched down in Helsinki.
In the same interview, Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals.
The Kremlin has also played down hopes that the odd couple will emerge from their first formal one-on-one summit with a breakthrough.
Putin, who played host at the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday and was due to arrive in Finland later Monday, has remained terse in the run-up to the summit.
On Friday his adviser Yuri Ushakov also played down expectations, saying: “The state of bilateral relations is very bad.... We have to start to set them right.”
Indeed, after the bad-tempered NATO summit and a contentious trip by Trump to Britain, anxious European leaders may be relieved if not much comes of the Helsinki meeting.
Many fear that Trump―in his eagerness to prove that he was right to seek the summit with Putin despite US political opposition―may give up too much ground.
Ahead of the talks, Trump has refused to personally commit to the US refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, leaving open the possibility of a climb-down.
If Washington were to de facto accept Russia’s 2014 land-grab, this would break with decades of US policy and send tremors through NATO’s exposed eastern flank.
Trump’s critics in Washington will be watching this―and also how he handles the growing evidence that Russian agents intervened in America’s 2016 presidential race.
Last week US special prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly hacking Trump rival Hillary Clinton’s computer server.
There will be outrage at home if Trump does not confront Putin over the scandal, but the mercurial US leader would not say whether he would demand the suspects’ extradition.
And his latest tweet before the meeting began suggested that he still sees Mueller’s probe as more of a threat to him than any tensions with Russia.
But of all the topics that may come up in the meetings it is Syria that may prove most important.
Despite the doubts of his top advisers, Trump is keen to withdraw US troops from eastern Syria, where they have been battling the Islamic State group.
Reports suggest he may seek a deal that Russia work with Israel to contain Iran’s influence, in exchange for allowing Putin’s ally Bashar al-Assad to stay in power.
This could free up US troops to withdraw, but would also―as with Crimea―be seen as a triumph for Putin and a betrayal of US allies on the ground.