President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin arrived at Helsinki’s presidential palace Monday for their historic sit-down, with the eyes of the world watching and no shortage of thorny issues to address.
Trump arrived a day early, while the jet of Putin, who wrapped up his nation’s hosting of the World Cup Sunday, touched down around 1 p.m. local time and the Russian president’s motorcade whisked him straight to the neo-classical palace a dozen miles from the airport.
Election meddling by Moscow, the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s involvement in Syria are all expected to come up in the first one-on-one talks between the nations’ leaders since 2010, though President Trump on Sunday sought to lower expectations for any major breakthrough.
“… no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!” Trump tweeted.
Back home, Democrats and some Republicans called for Trump to cancel the summit after the Department of Justice announced the indictments of a dozen Russian military intelligence operatives for allegedly hacking Democratic targets in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Putin has previously told Trump Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Certainly I’ll be asking about it,” Trump told CBS News on Saturday.
While the election hacking issue was thrust into the spotlight on the eve of the summit, other issues awaited the leaders.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said Trump was “highly unlikely” to recognize Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but refused to rule out the possibility.
Trump himself has been noncommittal on the issue, saying Friday during a press conference with British Prime Minister Teresa May that “we’re going to see what happens” at the Helsinki summit.
The president claimed ahead of his summit with Putin that the Russian president would not have invaded Crimea had he been in office, calling the globally condemned annexation an “Obama disaster.”
Putin has signaled he would like Trump to soften sanctions that Washington imposed over the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, involvement in the Syrian civil war and allegations of Russian meddling.
Trump signed an August, 2017 law imposing additional sanctions on Russia. The law bars Trump from easing many sanctions without Congress’ approval, but he can offer some relief without a nod from Congress.
Almost 700 Russian people and companies are under U.S. sanctions. Individuals face limits on their travel and freezes on at least some of their assets, while some top Russian state banks and companies, including oil and gas giants, are effectively barred from getting financing through U.S. banks and markets.
The two leaders also are expected to discuss a tentative deal to move Iranian troops farther from Israel’s border with Syria and Jordan, in exchange for allowing access there to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
U.S. officials have worried about the danger of new conflict in Syria between Israel and Iran or Iran-backed forces. The White House also seeks increased Russian oil production—a move on which Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have already agreed—to restrict Iranian export earnings.
A National Security Council official told Fox News that Trump spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend to prepare for the Putin meeting.
“Yesterday I spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump,” Netanyahu said in Israel on Sunday. “We discussed security and diplomatic issues arising from regional developments, chief most among them, of course, Syria and Iran.
“I thanked President Trump for his tough policy against Iran because since this policy has been taken, we have seen a great effect on Iran and inside Iran,” he added. “President Trump reiterated with sharp clarity his commitment to the security of Israel and his willingness to help Israel in various realms and, of course, I thanked him for that.”
Putting constraints on Iran could be the top Helsinki priority of Trump and his advisers. U.S. and Russian officials have agreed on a tentative proposal that would keep Iranian forces in Syria 27 miles from Israeli border.
Fox News’ Gregg Re contributed to this report