US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have met and shaken hands at Finland’s Presidential Palace for a much-anticipated summit.
Mr Putin arrived minutes earlier than Mr Trump at the palace in Helsinki for the summit, which consists of a one-on-one meeting and a larger working lunch, and will conclude with a joint news conference.
Monday’s meeting is being closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic, coming days after the US Justice Department indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for their role in hacking Democratic entities during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Speaking in front of media before the closed-door summit, Mr Trump said that getting along with Russia would be a “good thing, not a bad thing”.
“Most importantly we have a lot of good things to talk about,” Trump said after opening his remarks with praise for Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup.
Trump said he and Putin would talk about “everything from trade to military to missiles to China. We’ll be talking a little bit about China. Our mutual friend President Xi.”
In front of the media Putin told Trump it was time to talk about relations between Moscow and Washington and he suggested they should discuss difficult multi-national issues.
“There are enough of them for us to start paying attention,” he said, sitting next to Trump before they shook hands.
The two men were to meet alone apart from interpreters before a working lunch with aides. Trump said they would talk about a range of subjects, listing trade, the military, nuclear weapons and China.
But in his public remarks at the outset, he mentioned none of the issues that have lately brought US-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 the 2016 US election.
Trump saved his public criticism for his own country, tweeting 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!”
The Russian foreign ministry “liked” his tweet.
The Kremlin said before the summit it did not expect much from the meeting but hoped it would be a “first step” to resolving a crisis in ties.
“Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along.”
Mr Trump is on the final leg of a European tour in which he has clashed with NATO allies and met British Prime Minister Theresa May and the Queen. He flew into Helsinki on Sunday after a two-day stay at his golf course in Scotland.
The meeting comes against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia election meddling probe and fears that Moscow’s aggression might go unpunished.
US Congress members from both parties have condemned the talks after 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Mr Trump’s presidential campaign were indicted in the US last week.
That has not deterred Mr Trump, although there are still questions about whether he will rebuke Mr Putin for the election meddling. It has prompted a special counsel probe that Mr Trump has repeatedly called a witch hunt.
Mr Putin will likely not be shooting for official recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling US sanctions, aware the US Congress would never allow such action.
But he would welcome a symbolic end to Western protests about Crimea and Moscow’s attempts to destabilise elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.
Helsinki holds historical significance for diplomatic relations between the two long-time rivals. It was also the venue for other meetings between Russian and American leaders in 1975, 1990 and 1997.