U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will hold their first formal summit July 16 in Helsinki.
The summit confirmation by both sides came a day after Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton met with top Russian officials, including Putin, to lay the groundwork for the summit.
“President Trump asked me to come and speak to Russian authorities about the possibility of a meeting between him and President Putin,” said Bolton, speaking at a press briefing with international journalists in Moscow on Wednesday.
“There are a wide range of issues despite the differences between us where both President Trump and President Putin feel they can find constructive solutions,” added Bolton. “I’d like to hear someone say that’s a bad idea.”
Hawk becomes dove?
Appointed as a White House National Security Advisor just last March, Bolton — observers noted — made for an odd messenger for friendship with Moscow.
The former Bush administration official has long been regarded as a Russia ‘hawk’ and one of the Kremlin’s harshest critics over election interference, arms control, and other issues.
Yet challenged by reporters over his past statements — including calling President Putin a “liar” — Bolton claimed his past statements had no place in his current role as National Security Advisor.
“Right now I’m an advisor to President Trump. It’s his agenda that we’re pursuing and that’s the agenda I intend to advance,” said Bolton.
Wherever and whenever it occurs, the summit is all but certain to intensify scrutiny of the White House’s relationship with Russia amid ongoing U.S. federal investigations into contacts between Trump’s presidential campaign and Kremlin-linked officials on the road to Trump’s 2016 election win.
While the White House and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied those charges as a “witch hunt,” both sides recognized the shadow the investigation has cast over attempts at detente.
Bolton, who last year called Russian election interference “a true act of war,” seemed to comply with the Trump administration Wednesday, at least as far as any possible collusion between the president’s 2016 campaign and Russian operatives.
“A lot of the president’s critics have tried to make political capital out of theories and suppositions that have turned out to be completely erroneous,” said Bolton, adding that Trump had decided to disregard the “political noise.”
Indeed, that point was stressed by Putin in brief comments before cameras as talks got underway.
“From the beginning, it, unfortunately, must be said that Russian-American relations are not in the best shape,” said Putin in addressing Bolton.
“I’ve already said publicly more than once, and want to repeat again in our meetings, that this is mostly due to internal political struggles within the States themselves. Your arrival in Moscow instills hope that we can make at least initial steps towards the restitution of full relations between our governments.”
So many topics, so little time
Hovering over the next few weeks will be questions over what concrete deals can be worked out given the summit’s short notice.
Observers note that most presidential summits take months of planning and negotiations to present the right ‘optics’ and ‘deliverables’ worthy of a meeting at the highest level.
Bolton said he expected follow-on discussions between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to address those issues in the coming days.
The two sides will certainly have ample topics to choose from.
Both Washington and Moscow have expressed a desire to find common ground on issues such as arms control and combating terrorism. More vexing have been the fallout in relations over such issues as Ukraine, Syria, Western sanctions, and allegations the Kremlin was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil last March.
But Bolton eschewed concerns that the summit would produce little of substance: “I think the fact of the summit itself is a deliverable and I don’t exclude that they will reach concrete agreements,” said Bolton.
Atlantic Council senior fellow Robert Manning told VOA the best case scenario for the summit would be progress on Ukraine and Syria, while maintaining current arms control agreements.
“I think Putin so far has been willing to accept Ukraine as another frozen conflict. I think there’s efforts afoot to try to find a way back to the Minsk agreement and to find a solution to the Ukrainian issue,” Manning said. “And it’s always easier to get into an intervention to get out of it, and I think probably Putin’s looking for an exit strategy in Syria as well.”