U.S. President Donald Trump is set to hold the most consequential meeting of his 6-month-old presidency: a face-to-face sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort aimed at stemming a deepening crisis in U.S.-Russia relations.
With Kremlin actions overshadowing Trump since before his January inauguration, the U.S. president is looking for common ground with Putin: on the grinding war in Syria and the unresolved conflict in Ukraine; on hacking and cyberwarfare; on North Korea’s ballistic-missile tests; and on the fight against terrorism.
Their meeting is scheduled in the afternoon of July 7 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of major industrialized countries in Hamburg, Germany -- a summit that will also be closely watched for White House intentions on trade deals and climate change.
Trump, who arrived in Hamburg a day earlier, met Putin briefly on the morning of July 7. The two shook hands and smiled while standing near other officials at the venue, with the U.S. president patting Putin on the back.
Trump has repeatedly called for a new approach to Moscow, saying there are plenty of areas of overlap.
But Trump’s efforts are tinged by multiple congressional investigations, and an FBI criminal probe, into Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s presidential election and interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Russia and the United States "have considerable potential for coordinating efforts in the sphere of the struggle against international terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, and the spread of mass-destruction weapons,” the Kremlin’s top foreign adviser, Yury Ushakov, told reporters in Moscow earlier this week.
"Discussions with Trump may touch upon the issues of arms control and strategic stability whose maintenance Russia and the United States bear special responsibility for as the largest nuclear powers,” he was quoted as saying.
To date, the White House has made no major reversals of Russian policies begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Sanctions imposed in 2014 for Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula remain in place. So do the sanctions levied in December in response to U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election campaign.
Those measures included the seizure of Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York, which U.S. officials have said may have been used for intelligence-gathering. Moscow has repeatedly complained about that, and last month, the Foreign Ministry threatened the seizure of some U.S. diplomatic properties if the compounds aren’t returned.
Tension have also risen sharply in Syria, where Washington and Moscow share some overlapping goals in defeating Islamic State militants. That overlap has been frayed, however, by Moscow's stalwart backing of Syria's president, and reports of chemical weapons attacks against civilians.
The White House is also hoping to enlist Russian backing for sterner measures against North Korea, just days after Pyongyang tested what the U.S. confirmed was an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Meanwhile, Putin's agenda on July 7 also included talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Their meetings were expected to focus on North Korea's test launch on July 4 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
On the morning of July 8, Putin was expected to discuss Ukraine's conflict during a working breakfast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Later on July 8, Putin was to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss energy projects and bilateral cooperation.
The Russian president also was to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on July 8 and have a separate bilateral meeting with Macron.
On July 6, during a visit to Poland before he traveled on to the Hamburg, Trump made several statements that were likely to annoy Moscow.
He made an explicit endorsement of the most important component of the treaty that established the NATO alliance: Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one member should be considered an attack on all members.
That was welcome reassurance for former Soviet bloc members of NATO, such as the three Baltic states and Poland, who fear Russia’s more assertive military actions of recent years.
The White House also gave its blessing to a $7.6 billion deal to sell Patriot missile-defense systems to Poland by the end of the year. U.S. missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe have prompted repeated complaints from Russia in the past, and Obama had shelved similar plans in 2009 as part of his administration’s attempted “reset” of relations with Moscow.
Trump also pushed for a long-term deal to supply Poland with U.S. liquefied natural gas, which would help reduce Poland’s dependency on Russian gas.
And in a speech in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square, he called on Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
But the U.S. leader also downplayed the consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, and many Republicans and Democrats in Congress, that Russia had actively meddled in the election that he ended up winning.
"Nobody really knows for sure," Trump told a news conference in Warsaw on July 6 when asked about the allegations of Russian interference.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency as saying on July 7 that Putin had been "thoroughly" informed of Trump’s statements in Poland and "has been taking it all into account."
Peskov also shrugged off Trump's call to reduce Moscow’s dominant role as a supplier of natural gas to Eastern Europe, telling reporters: "There's no energy monopoly in Europe."
Trump’s presence at the G20 summit will also be closely watched for hints into Trump administration policy, particular regarding trade.
As a candidate last year, Trump railed against major trade deals negotiated by the Obama administration, and his campaign was built around an “America First” approach to trade.
He has canceled one that would link up Pacific Rim economies, and in May, his administration notified Congress that it planned to renegotiate the NAFTA trade deal linking the economies of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. He called the 23-year-old agreement “the worst trade deal ever.”
The Trump administration's open disdain for the science behind climate change has also worried European and Asian allies. Trump announced last month he intended to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, under which the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Merkel, who is hosting the summit and who is up for reelection in September, said among the issues G20 leaders would be tackling would be terrorism, combatting climate change, and regulations of financial markets
Thousands of antiglobalization activists were expected to protest in Hamburg during the two-day summit.
Merkel said that "free, rule-based, and fair trade" would be an important topic.
"You can imagine that there will be discussions that will not be easy," she said. "Globalization can be a win-win situation. It must not always be that there are winners and losers."
With reporting by AP