WASHINGTON – The U.S. ambassador to Russia has defended President Donald Trump's decision to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and insisted that it was up to Moscow to reverse the downward spiral in relations with Washington.
In a conference call with reporters on July 5, Jon Huntsman said Trump will initially meet one-on-one with Putin, followed by an expanded meeting to include top advisers.
He also defended the notion of holding the meeting with Putin in the first place, something some experts and officials have questioned, given ongoing Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, and persistent questions about Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"It is in the interest of America's national security to determine if Russia is willing to make progress in our bilateral relations," he said.
The meeting, to be held in Helsinki on July 16, is the first major summit between the two leaders and comes as relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to levels not seen since the Cold War.
“The ball really is in Russia's court and the president will continue to hold Russia accountable for its malign activity," Huntsman said.
The issue of extending the New START arms treaty is expected to come up for discussion, as will the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, a landmark agreement that Washington has accused Moscow of violating repeatedly.
Also looming over the summit is the question of Russia’s alleged interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Putin ordered a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at swaying U.S. voters, and officials later said the Kremlin clearly intended to support Trump.
Those findings were endorsed earlier this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
However, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on those conclusions and suggested the various investigations into Russian meddling were political motivated.
"We're entering with our eyes wide open, but peace is always worth the effort," Huntsman said.
The question of Ukraine is also expected to come up. Washington hit Moscow with economic sanctions in 2014 for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and has criticized Russia for fueling the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Trump has recently signaled doubts about that U.S. policy and said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of recognizing Crimea as part of Russia.
Before traveling to Helsinki, Trump will meet in Brussels with heads of state from NATO, whose relations with Washington have been roiled by Trump's criticisms of members' military spending.
He has also made veiled threats about pulling U.S. troops out of Europe, and, in the past, suggested that Washington might not observe the alliance's most important feature: that an attack on one member should be considered an attack on all members.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, downplayed fears of a split between the United States and the alliance.
"Everyone has the same goal: a strong deterrent, an alliance that is unified, an alliance that can face any of the threats that any of our members might face," she told reporters.