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Kremlin Prepares for ‘Difficult’ Trump-Putin Meeting

Trump pursuit of Putin bromance highlights policy disconnect
The Associated Press

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for his meeting with “counterpart” U.S. President Donald Trump, a day after he described a scheduled summit between the two leaders as “difficult.”

Putin and Trump are entering their first formal, in-person summit in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday with a varied, somewhat open agenda, expecting to range from Iran’s role in the Syrian Civil War to Russia’s belligerence against post-Soviet states to the ongoing negotiations to attempt to denuclearize North Korea.

Peskov has not elaborated on what the topics on the docket will be Monday for the two leaders. On Friday, he responded to President Trump’s assessment that he and Putin are, “in a sense,” “competitors” because they are meeting to seek the best interests of their respective countries.

“He’s not my enemy. Hopefully someday, maybe he’ll be a friend,” Trump told reporters.

“[Putin sees Trump as] the President of the United States, a counterpart in the negotiations scheduled for Monday,” Peskov said Friday, according to the Russian news outlet TASS.

Peskov said only a little more on Thursday, lamenting that negotiations with Trump “will be difficult.” He added, however, the faint optimism that relations will probably not worsen: “you know the extent of the disagreements on the agenda, so it’s unlikely that anything else can complicate it now.”

President Trump has been slightly more detailed with the press on what he expects to discuss with Putin on Monday. Speaking to reporters at a press conference following the NATO summit Thursday, Trump said he was “not looking for so much” out of the meeting as much as having frank conversations with Putin.

“We want to find out about Syria … We’ll be talking about Ukraine,” Trump noted, appearing to refer to the ongoing war in that country triggered by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine’s east. Putin’s government invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014, subsequently continuing provocative actions such as constructing bridges in the region to keep Ukrainian ships out. Ukraine is a NATO member and, should they invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty in its conflict with Russia, the United States would be treaty-bound to defend Ukraine.

Trump noted that it was “very interesting to hear” Ukraine’s complaints about Russia.

In addition to those two topics, Trump told reporters that he would “of course ask your favorite question about [election] meddling,” though he added, “All I can do is ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’”

Since Trump’s remarks, the Department of Justice issued 12 new indictments against Russian nationals affiliated with the nation’s military intelligence apparatus for allegedly using “spearphishing” techniques to hack into the email accounts of major players in the Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential election. The indictments make clear that no Americans were found to have had any knowing involvement in the scheme.

In remarks Thursday, Trump did not mention North Korea, though various experts suggest that it will be inevitable for the two leaders to discuss the ongoing talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

“Trump will mention North Korea [to Putin] to ensure that all parties are aware of his intended outcome,” Tony Nash, founder and chief economist at analytics firm Complete Intelligence, told CNBC Friday. “Every little bit of influence and information helps with North Korea.”

Putin will welcome a North Korean soccer delegation this weekend for the FIFA World Cup final, according to North Korea’s state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Adding a wrinkle to Trump-Putin talks, the United States also formally accused Russia and China of violating United Nations sanctions on Thursday and selling North Korea oil, helping to prop up the communist regime and making it easier for dictator Kim Jong-un to resist denuclearization.

Syria appears to be the topic on which Trump has the most to gain from Putin. Russia has long supported dictator Bashar al-Assad in the country against largely Sunni Muslim rebel opposition, allying with Iran in the process. Over the past several weeks, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have developed a united front in convincing Russia that Iran is an unreliable ally, in part because it is an Islamic theocratic dictatorship and the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Christian Church has grown increasingly influential because the Russian leader has made the argument publicly that Russia should be a protector state of the world’s Christians, particularly Syrian Christians.

Netanyahu, who enjoys friendly relations with Putin despite ally Iran’s consistent threats to destroy Israel, spent some time this week with Putin in Moscow, making the argument that Iran’s and Russia’s goals in Syria are incompatible. Netanyahu i reporotedly especially concerned about Assad’s control moving closer to the Israeli border and bringing Iranian troops and terrorist Hezbollah forces with it.

According to a report in YNet News, Israeli government officials are optimistic that Putin will be receptive. One official told the news outlet that a “realistic opportunity has been created to push Iran out of Syria.”

“It’s not wishful thinking. Russia, too, is not fond of Iranian presence in Syria, and even Assad understands that the Iranians are exploiting him to promote their own interests in the area. Therefore, it is important to coordinate with the Russians and others involved in this conflict,” the anonymous source said.

Ending an alliance with Iran may not necessarily require Putin, who has spent much of his domestic political capital on his involvement in the Syrian civil war, to abandon Assad, as the Trump administration has diminished the emphasis that predecessor Barack Obama placed on removing Assad from power. Assad has also largely avoided conflict with Christian communities, using them for propaganda purposes.

“With Assad’s removal from power no longer an actively sought objective, the focus has shifted to Iran’s influence in Syria,” the Associated Press notes in an analysis Friday. As of this week, Assad – on the brink of losing the war before Russia’s involvement – now controls the southern rebel stronghold Daraa, where the uprising against him began. The Islamic State is almost entirely eradicated in the country, thanks to the world of American troops and Syrian Kurdish militias – and not to Iranian or Russian forces.

Russia has outwardly given no signs that it is open to ending its alliance with Iran in Syria. On the contrary, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that any removal of Iranian troops from Syria was “absolutely unrealistic.” A panicked Iran responded to speculation through adviser Ali Akbar Velayati on Friday, who insisted only Assad could convince Iran to withdraw from Syria.

Trump and Putin will meet on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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