President Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin arrived in Helsinki for much-anticipated talks on Monday, shortly after Trump had blamed “U.S. foolishness” for souring relations between Washington and Moscow.
Trump and Putin are scheduled to meet at the presidential palace for a direct meeting with only their interpreters present, followed by a working lunch accompanied by advisers. The global leaders are then expected to host a joint press conference later in the day.
In his opening remarks to the media before a closed-door meeting with Putin, Trump said that getting along with Russia would be a "good thing, not a bad thing."
He had said earlier that previous U.S. administrations — and not Moscow — were to blame for a steep decline in U.S.-Russia relations in recent years.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump said via Twitter on Monday morning.
The official Twitter account of the Russian foreign ministry liked the tweet, shortly before posting a response saying: "We agree."
The U.S. president’s comments appeared to show just how much domestic political pressure he is under while meeting with his Russian counterpart in the Finnish capital.
Some U.S. lawmakers had called on Trump to consider scrapping the summit altogether after 12 Russians were charged with hacking on Friday.
The defendants, all of whom are Russian intelligence officers, were accused of launching cyber attacks on the Democratic presidential campaign in 2016. Russia has denied any collusion took place.
The summit was due to start at 1 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET), though Putin — who is notorious for making his diplomatic guests wait on his arrival — stepped off the plane at around 1:15 p.m. Both leaders eventually met at the presidential palace shortly after 2 p.m., over one hour after the summit was due to begin.
The first official dialogue between the two global leaders was seen as a symbolic end to an effort among Western allies to try to isolate Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Officials of the White House and the Kremlin had sought to downplay expectations ahead of the summit, though Trump had predicted “maybe some good” could come of the talks.
“Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh Russia, he loves Russia,’” Trump said on Friday during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Meanwhile, for Putin, the fact that this summit is happening at all is seen as a geopolitical victory for Russia. That’s because talks between the U.S. and Russia could be viewed by Putin’s inner circle as evidence Washington is finally willing to recognize Moscow as a great power on the international stage.
The Helsinki summit constitutes the final destination of an almost week-long European trip for Trump, during which he has frequently challenged traditional Western allies.
Over the past week, Trump has sown doubts about America’s commitment to the NATO alliance, reportedly threatened to kill off a potential trade deal with the U.K. post-Brexit and described the EU as a “foe” of the world’s largest economy.