US president Donald Trump has extended the hand of friendship to Russian president Vladimir Putin as the two met in Helsinki for face-to-face talks.
In opening remarks in front of reporters Trump congratulated Putin on the World Cup, as he put nuclear weapons firmly on the agenda.
Among the other issues Trump wants to discuss at Finland’s presidential palace are trade, military and China.
The summit will consist of a one-on-one meeting and a larger working lunch, and will conclude with a joint news conference.
The 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 Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sitting beside the Russian president, Trump called the World Cup "one of the best ever", and praised the performance of the Russian team.
"We are the two great nuclear powers, we have 90% of the nuclear, and that's not a good thing, that's a bad thing. And I hope we can do something about that."
He added he thinks "we will end up having an extraordinary relationship," as he said "getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing," he added.
Earlier, the American president blamed the United States, not Russian election meddling, for the current low point in US-Russia relations.
Putin hopes the meeting, mere hours after he presided over the World Cup final in Moscow, will help him forge good personal ties with Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and Washington may be able to find common ground, such as in Syria.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning, blaming “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The summit was condemned in advance by members of congress from both parties after the US indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump, who has sought to lower expectations about what will be achieved, told reporters during a breakfast with Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto that he thought the summit would go “fine”.
The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompted a special counsel probe which the US leader has repeatedly labelled a “witch hunt”.
In his tweets, Trump continued to undermine the investigation and blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favour. He claimed Obama “was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it”.
The Obama administration did, in fact, take action, including confronting Putin in person as well as expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats the US said were actually intelligence operatives and imposing new sanctions.
While Trump is eager for a made-for-TV moment that will dominate headlines like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the Kremlin’s primary mission was simply to have the summit take place.
The two leaders first meet one-on-one in the Finnish presidential palace’s opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room. The leaders will conclude by taking questions at a joint news conference.
Ahead of his sit-down with with Putin, who has cracked down on the free press, Trump has continued to unleash a series of attacks on the media, even as Air Force One descended into Helsinki.
“Unfortunately, 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.
“Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how to do is resist and obstruct!”