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Trump, Putin to Meet in Osaka          06/25 06:09

   The shadow of Helsinki lingers. Uncertainties about Russia's past and future 
election interference continue. And tensions are high over hot spots from Iran 
to Venezuela.

   NEW YORK (AP) -- The shadow of Helsinki lingers. Uncertainties about 
Russia's past and future election interference continue. And tensions are high 
over hot spots from Iran to Venezuela.

   When President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet this 
week on the sidelines of an international summit in Japan, it will mark a new 
chapter in a much scrutinized relationship that crackles with questions and 
contradictions. Even as Trump places a premium on establishing close personal 
ties with Putin, his government has increased sanctions and other pressures on 

   The agenda remains a mystery, as still does the outcome of their last 
meeting, nearly a year ago in Finland.

   "The whole world was watching in Helsinki when President Trump sided with 
Putin over his own intelligence community and we still, all this time later, 
don't know what they discussed in their private meeting," said Michael McFaul, 
U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. "And now, I suspect, 
they will bond over the end of the Mueller probe and push the narrative, 
individually and together, that there was nothing there. It will feel like a 
vindication to them both."

   The Group of 20 summit in Osaka will be the leaders' first meeting since 
special counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation with no finding that the 
Trump campaign in 2016 conspired with Russia. That question long had shadowed 
Trump's presidency.

   Putin has denied that Russia meddled in the American election to help Trump 
win, even though Mueller uncovered extensive evidence to the contrary. That 
included a Russian military intelligence operation to break into Democratic 
Party emails and efforts by a "troll farm" to spread divisive rhetoric and 
undermine the U.S. political system by using phony social media accounts.

   The current tensions with Iran are certain to be a meeting topic. Trump last 
week called off airstrikes to retaliate for Iran's destruction of a U.S. drone 
hours after Putin said the use of U.S. force in the region would trigger a 

   Putin's defense of Tehran is not the only authoritarian government that he 
has backed. Putin has supported Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Syria's Bashar 
Assad, helping keep each in power despite American opposition. Moscow's 
deepening ties with China also have unnerved many in Washington.

   For years, Trump has raised eyebrows with his effusive praise of Putin. The 
Russian president has steadfastly refused to criticize Trump, saying 
Russia-U.S. relations have become hostage to  American political infighting and 
its "deep state."

   "Even if the president wants to take some steps forward, to discuss 
something, there are plenty of restrictions coming from other state 
structures," Putin said in a radio call-in event last week, adding that he 
believed Trump's re-election bid will further tie his hands. "Dialogue is 
always good and necessary. If the American side shows interest in that, we are 
naturally ready for a dialogue as much as our partners are."

   The leaders last year announced their withdrawal from a key arms control 
pact, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is set to terminate 
this summer, raising fears of a new arms race. Another major nuclear agreement, 
the New Start treaty, is set to expire in 2021 unless Moscow and Washington 
negotiate an extension.

   "The relationship between the two nations is in poor shape by any measure 
and the administration policy toward Russia is relatively tough even though the 
president's rhetoric is not," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on 
Foreign Relations. "There is nothing teed up to succeed at this meeting."

   Along with arms control frictions, Russia's annexation of Crimea and its 
support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine weigh heavily on 
Russia-U.S. relations. Last November, Trump abruptly canceled a scheduled round 
of talks with Putin on the sidelines of a summit in Argentina, citing Russia's 
seizure of Ukrainian navy ships and their crews. The two men briefly spoke 

   Putin's primary goal is to get Trump to ease sanctions that Congress has 
stepped in and toughened.

   Putin acknowledged last week that U.S. and European Union sanctions have 
cost Russia an estimated $50 billion since 2014. That has helped weaken Putin's 
hand and reduced his hopes for some grand bargain that would elevate Russia's 
power around the globe.

   As for Trump's aims, "it's hard to know what the White House's goals are 
because this is not a normal administration," said Kimberly Marten, political 
science chair at Barnard College. "If it were, you could imagine progress being 
made on New Start treaty and arms control, while also trying to avoid conflict 
escalation in areas where their interests oppose, like Iran, North Korea, 
Venezuela and Ukraine. But I am not sure what the purpose of the meeting is."

   All of Trump's meetings with Putin have raised questions.

   At their first one, in Germany in 2017, Trump took his interpreter's notes 
afterward and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone. Trump later 
sat next to Putin at dinner without any American witnesses. That fall, in 
Vietnam, Trump listened to Putin's denials about interfering with the 2016 

   And last July, Trump and Putin spent more than two hours in a private 
meeting in Helsinki with only their interpreters present. Some U.S. 
intelligence officials were never briefed on the discussions. On Monday, the 
chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, 
D-Md., said the White House never responded to a February letter asking what 
happened to records of the discussion.

   At the news conference that followed the Helsinki summit, Trump responded to 
a reporter's question by declining to denounce Russia's election interference 
or side with his own intelligence agencies over Putin. Last week, when asked on 
NBC if he would warn Putin not to interfere in the 2020 election, Trump offered 
"I may." He made no promises to push to safeguard the American vote.

   "This meeting, like their others, feels fraught with uncertainty," said 


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