By Jeff Mason and Andrew Osborn
HELSINKI, July 16 (Reuters) – Hours before he was due to sit down for his first ever summit with Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed “U.S. foolishness” for bad relations between Washington and Moscow, while the Kremlin said it expected a tough meeting.
Trump’s comments show how much domestic political pressure he is under over the meeting in the Finnish capital Helsinki, while the Kremlin’s low expectations reflect its belief that the fact the summit is even happening is a Russian win.
Critics and his own advisers have urged Trump to use the summit to press Putin hard about election meddling and other “malign” activities. But hours before he was due to meet the Russian president, Trump focused his ire on his own country and the investigation into possible links between his 2016 campaign and Russia. The president has denied any collusion took place.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” wrote Trump on Twitter, referring to the investigation into possible collusion.
During a breakfast meeting with Finland’s president before the meeting with Putin in the Finnish capital, Trump appeared upbeat. Asked what he would say to Putin, Trump said: “We’ll do just fine, thank you.”
Trump and his wife Melania returned to their hotel after the breakfast and were expected to remain there for a few hours before the afternoon summit. Putin was due in Helsinki around lunch time.
The two leaders will first meet one-on-one with only their interpretors, followed by a working lunch accompanied by advisers, and a joint news conference.
While Trump has been abroad since last week, the special prosecutor investigating allegations that Russia interfered to help him win the 2016 presidential election indicted 12 Russians on Friday for stealing Democratic Party documents.
Trump’s foes at home have been scathing about his apparent refusal to criticise Putin. His 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Great World Cup. Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?”
Neither side expects major breakthroughs from the talks and the outcome is uncertain given sharp differences between Washington and Moscow over everything from Syria to Ukraine.
For Putin, the fact that the summit is even happening despite Russia’s semi-pariah status among some Americans and U.S. allies is a geopolitical win because, in Russian eyes, it shows that Washington recognises Moscow as a great power that cannot be isolated or ignored.
The Kremlin made clear beforehand it did not expect an easy meeting, taking Trump to task over his criticism of a planned Russian gas pipeline to Germany and suggesting it would be hard to find common ground on Syria because of differences over Iran.
Russia hoped however that the summit would be “the first step” in overcoming a crisis in relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s RT TV station. “Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well. There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along.”
Trump wants Russia to help Moscow to use its influence in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad militarily, to push Iranian and Iranian-allied forces out.
“Of course Syria will be discussed by the two presidents,” said Peskov. “We all know what Washington thinks of Iran. But at the same time Iran is a good partner to us in terms of trade, economic cooperation and political dialogue. So this will not be an easy exchange of views.”
Trump has predicted he will be accused of being too soft on Putin no matter how the summit goes. “If I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia…I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!” he tweeted on Sunday.
He has said he will raise the issue of Russian election meddling, but does not expect to get anywhere.
Beyond warm words, the summit could yield an agreement to begin repairing battered U.S.-Russia relations, and maybe a deal to start talks on issues such as nuclear arms control and Syria.
The Helsinki summit is the capstone to a nearly week-long trip for Trump during which he has sown doubts about his commitment to the NATO military alliance, Washington’s so-called special relationship with Britain and U.S. relations with the European Union that he called “a foe” on trade.
(Additonal reporting by Steve Holland in Helsinki and by Christian Lowe and Polina Devitt in Moscow Writing by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff Editing by Angus MacSwan)