US President Donald Trump says his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin got off to a “very good start” with a one-on-one meeting that lasted more than two hours.
Not for the first time in his long career, Putin arrived later than expected, forcing Trump to wait. Trump opened the meeting with warm words for Putin, seated next to the Russian leader in an ornate presidential palace in neutral Finland, and said it was a longstanding goal of his to improve the relationship between the two countries.
“I think we will have an extraordinary relationship. I hope so. I’ve been saying it, and I’m sure you’ve heard over the years, and as I campaigned, that getting along with Russia is good thing, not a bad thing,” he said.
It followed more than two hours of one-on-one discussions involving just the US and Russian leaders, with only translators present. The White House had scheduled 90 minutes for that meeting.
The meeting comes as U.S.-Russian relations are more tense than at any time since the end of the Cold War, beleaguered by issues such as Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region; Moscow’s military, economic, and political encouragement of a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine; Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; and deep disagreements over the civil war in Syria and approaches to constraining Iran’s nuclear program.
In addition, Trump signed on to a July 12 joint statement from the leaders of NATO member countries that said Russia’s policies “have reduced stability and security” and accused Moscow of “challenging Euro-Atlantic security and stability through hybrid actions, including attempted interference in the election processes…, widespread disinformation campaigns, and malicious cyber activities.”
During a breakfast meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto before the meeting with Putin, Trump appeared positive. Asked what he would say to Putin, Trump said: “We’ll be just fine, thank you.”
Trump also said at the breakfast meeting that “NATO’s never been stronger” and “NATO has never been more together” after the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels, where he said alliance members agreed to speed up increasing their defense spending following criticisms he made at the meeting.
But to Trump’s critics, the friendly words had already been overshadowed by an extraordinary denunciation of his own country’s prior policies, which Trump tweeted out hours before the summit.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” he tweeted before the summit began.
The Russian foreign ministry “liked” his tweet, and tweeted back: “We agree”.
Trump mentioned none of the issues that have lately brought U.S.-Russian relations to the lowest point since the Cold War: Moscow’s annexation of territory from Ukraine, its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as well as Western accusations that it poisoned a spy in England and meddled in elections.
In some of the strongest words yet reflecting the unease of Washington’s traditional allies, Germany’s foreign minister said on Monday Europe could not rely on Trump.
“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” Heiko Maas told the Funke newspaper group. “To maintain our partnership with the USA we must readjust it. The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe.”