Trump and Putin test ties in Baltic showdown

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It is the first head-to-head summit between the two leaders. AFP / Brendan Smialowski

LEHTIKUVA (AFP) – US President Donald Trump headed into a summit with Vladimir Putin yesterday, determined to overcome diplomatic tensions and forge a personal bond with the Kremlin chief.

If Mr Trump’s instinct proves right and the pair find common ground, then the Helsinki summit may take the heat out of some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.

But the Washington-Moscow rivalry has rarely been more bitter and there are many points of friction that could yet spoil Mr Trump’s hoped-for friendship.

Mr Trump began the day’s talks by meeting with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, who has loaned his harbour-front palace for the occasion.

But first he took a moment to fire a Twitter broadside at his domestic opponents, blaming the diplomatic chill on the investigation into Russian election meddling.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Mr Trump tweeted.

After a stormy NATO summit in Brussels last week, Mr Trump was accused by critics of cosying up to Mr Putin while undermining the alliance.

But, over breakfast with Mr Niinisto, he insisted NATO “has never been stronger” and “never been more together” thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.

With Washington and Moscow at loggerheads over Syria, Ukraine and election interference, even Mr Trump has cautioned that he is not approaching the Mr Putin summit “with high expectations”.

“I think i’’s a good thing to meet. I do believe in meetings,” Mr Trump insisted in an interview with CBS News that aired before he touched down in Helsinki.

In the same interview, Mr Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals.

The Kremlin has also played down hopes that the odd couple will emerge from their first formal one-on-one summit with a breakthrough.

Mr Putin, who played host at the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday and was due to arrive in Finland later Monday, has remained terse in the run-up to the summit.

On Friday his adviser Yuri Ushakov also played down expectations, saying: “The state of bilateral relations is very bad…. We have to start to set them right.”

Ahead of the talks, Mr Trump has refused to personally commit to the US refusal to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, leaving open the possibility of a climb-down.

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