Donald Trump goes into his much-anticipated first encounter with Vladimir Putin on Friday against an inauspicious backdrop, after accusing Russia of acting as a destabilising force determined to test the will of the west.
The two men are to meet on Friday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, where they are likely to clash over North Korea’s successful ballistic missile test and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Before the relatively brief meeting that could yet shape his presidency, Trump used a speech in Warsaw on Thursday to urge Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.”
The US president called on Russia to “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defence of civilization itself.”
But – without directly blaming Russia – he also warned that western interests were being tested by “propaganda, financial crimes and cyber warfare.”
The assault on Russia came as part of a bombastic speech in which Trump claimed the very survival of the west was at risk from the multiple threats of terrorism, statism and the erosion of family values.
“The fundamental issue of our time is whether the west has the will to survive,” he said. “The defence of the west rests not only on means, but also on the will of its people to prevail.”
Faced by an increasingly anti-Russian sentiment in the media and the US Senate, fuelled by allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump has little option but to take a tough line with Putin.
But he made no attempt to sweeten the atmosphere before the meeting. He underlined his support for Nato, for the first time voicing his explicit personal support for article 5, which commits member states to mutual self-defence. He also confirmed that Poland had signed an agreement to buy a multibillion US Patriot missile defence system by 2022.
Later, Trump summed up his own speech in a tweet: “The west will never be broken. Our values will PREVAIL. Our people will THRIVE and our civilization will TRIUMPH!”
But in a conspicuous absence from his speech, Trump made no mention of the allegations that Russia had interfered in the election, the unanimous view of the US intelligence agencies.
At a press conference in Poland, he obfuscated, and said: “I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
The US intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in the election, and a special counsel, Robert Mueller, and several US congressional committees are investigating allegations that Moscow colluded with Trump’s campaign. No evidence has surfaced publicly implicating other countries.
Trump tried to fend off the blame by claiming the CIA told his predecessor, Barack Obama, last August about Russian interference in the election – but Obama did nothing to stop it.
“I think what happened is, he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, and he said let’s not do anything about it,” Trump said. “Had he thought the other way, he would have done something about it.”
Senior Senate Democrats said Trump would be committing a “severe dereliction” of his presidential duties if he failed to confront Putin about Moscow’s interference.
In a letter sent to Trump, the senators said it was critical that Trump set the agenda and make clear that Russia’s interference in the US electoral process will not be tolerated.
The letter was signed by minority leader Chuck Schumer and the top Democrats on the intelligence, armed services and foreign relations committees.
The meeting between the two presidents is scheduled to take place on Friday afternoon, and is due to last only half an hour. Trump will be accompanied by the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Russian officials said Putin hoped the meeting would open a new era of co-operation in fighting terrorism, not just against Islamic State in Syria, but more broadly. He had hoped Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin’s leadership, would be politically strong enough to recast the relationship, marking a sharp change from Obama, who had dismissed Russia as a regional power.
The Kremlin said it wanted the meeting to establish “a working dialogue, which is probably vital for all the world in terms of improving efficiency in resolving a critical mass of conflicts and problems.”
Putin also warned that the ever greater use of sanctions was morphing into a form of protectionism, and even “developing into a behavioral norm.”
He said: “[The] limits by one-sided, politically motivated sanctions on investment, trade and particularly technology transfer are becoming its hidden form.”
Putin said that such sanctions not only lead nowhere, but “contradict the G20 principles” of working together in the interests of all countries.
Putin will also have been angered by Trump’s decision to choose Poland as his first stop on his European tour, and the US president’s repeated references to the evils of communism inflicted on the people of Warsaw, as well as Russia’s failure to defend Poles from Nazi massacres.
Angela Merkel, the summit’s host, met Trump before the formal start of the proceedings on Thursday night to see if common ground could be found on world trade, climate change and North Korea, the three issues likely to dominate the wider policy agenda.
China has been insisting no communique should be drafted that leaves America totally isolated, despite its decision to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, one of the major issues being raised by the thousands of demonstrators in Hamburg.
But China, in conjunction with South Korea, is also pressing Trump to soften his rhetoric over North Korea’s latest missile test, and to focus on sanctions. An early attempt by the US, supported by China, to table a condemnatory resolution at the UN in New York floundered when Russia objected to wording that suggested the missile was definitely an inter-continental ballistic one.
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