Trump blames bad Russia ties on FBI 'witch hunt'

16 July 2018 - 09:14 By AFP
A projection is seen on a wall next to the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland July 15, 2018.
A projection is seen on a wall next to the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland July 15, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

US President Donald Trump set the scene for his summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday by blaming the chill in relations with Moscow on the investigation into Russian interference in his election victory.

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!" Trump tweeted, referring to US special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe.

Last week, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking computer servers belonging to Trump's 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party, then leaking private emails to damage her campaign.

Trump has furiously denied his campaign colluded in the alleged interference, and has generally denounced the special investigation as a "witch hunt" promoted by his enemies to delegitimise his victory.

At the same time, the US leader has promised to bring up the issue on Monday at his summit with Putin in Helsinki. 

What do Putin and Trump expect from the Helsinki summit?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump will meet in Finland on Monday for their first one-on-one summit.

With relations between their two countries at lows not seen since the Cold War, the pair will have their work cut out to bring anything positive out of the meeting.

What are Moscow and Washington actually hoping to get from the talks?

The view from Moscow 

The fact that the meeting is happening at all is already a win for the Kremlin, which has long sought a summit but has been pushed back by Washington, analyst Andrei Baklitsky said.

The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as alleged meddling in the US election and Western sanctions are bones of contention between the countries. Baklitsky said he expected few "groundbreaking decisions" from the summit.

A joint declaration was as much as anyone could hope for, he added.

Political analyst Alexei Malashenko suggested that for Putin, the meeting was "an informal recognition of Russia as a great power".

Putin might try to convince Trump to take a "more flexible" position on war-ravaged Syria in the hope that Washington would be less active in the country, Malashenko said.

Any compromise on that region would be seen as a victory for Moscow, he added.

The US will want to convince Moscow that Iranian forces should leave Syria, but Putin is "probably not ready" to jeopardise relations with Tehran over the issue, he said.

In any case the topic is easier for the two leaders to discuss than the ongoing conflict in the east of ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is a much more sensitive issue for Russia.

In terms of election meddling, Baklitsky said Russia would deny -- as it long has -- interfering in the 2016 US presidential vote that brought Trump to power.

But Moscow might be willing to issue a joint statement pledging not to carry out any such activity in the future.

The view from Washington 

US analysts suggested the value for Trump was in putting himself at the centre of US foreign policy.

"He wants to be perceived as the one who makes these decisions, that he makes them unilaterally, that he is the crucial dealmaker," said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

"It's the perception that is the most important for Trump rather than what he actually receives," he told AFP.

Pomeranz anticipated a joint statement coming out of the meeting.

Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agreed that Trump would use the summit as an opportunity to boost his domestic standing.

"What will Trump be able to sell as a win with Russia? Basically that 'Obama has screwed up this relationship and I've made it right'," she said.

"'Russia is not a threat to us because I've personally made this connection with Putin and we see eye-to-eye.'"

But William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the non-partisan Rand Corporation in Washington, said Trump might try to secure some minor deliverable agreements.

He cited as examples the possible re-opening of the US consulate in Saint Petersburg and the Russian one in San Francisco.

It was less likely that Trump might try to strike some sort of grand bargain with Russia, such as recognition of Russian-annexed Crimea in return for Moscow using its influence to get Iranian militias out of Syria, Courtney said.

Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there were three mutually beneficial topics the two leaders could discuss.

These would be the extension of the new START arms reduction treaty, the protection of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the establishment of better military-to-military communications on a range of topics. 

U.S. President Trump told Russian President Putin that he hopes the two leaders will end up having "an extraordinary relationship" in opening remarks in Helsinki.

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