MOSCOW -- The United States and Russia have agreed to hold a summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both sides announced Wednesday.
The announcement came after White House National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Putin and other senior Russian officials Wednesday at the Kremlin.
Bolton and a Kremlin aide confirmed the summit had been agreed upon during separate news conferences in Moscow, but both said a date and location for the summit would be announced on Thursday. The Kremlin aide, Yuri Ushakov, who is charged with foreign policy, would only say that the meeting between the two presidents would be held in a third country and would last "several hours."
The summit appears likely to take place in mid-July, with reports that U.S. officials have been looking into holding it during an already-planned trip to Europe. Trump is currently scheduled to attend a NATO summit and visit Britain next month.
On the eve of Bolton's visit to Moscow, Reuters and Politico quoted that an anonymous senior U.S. official as saying that Helsinki, the capital of Finland, was being considered as the venue for the meeting.
In response, the Finnish presidency's official account tweeted: "There have been many questions about @Politico’s article on a possible Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki. Comment by President Sauli Niinistö: 'Finland is always ready to offer its good services if asked.' No additional comments available at the moment."
A Trump-Putin summit has appeared to be in the works for months. In March, Trump invited Putin to come to the White House. Both sides expressed enthusiasm for a meeting, but the question of when remained unanswered until recently, when reports emerged that the U.S. was seeking to hold a summit with Putin during Trump's Europe trip. Trump is scheduled to attend the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, then travel to the U.K. on July 13. A Kremlin spokesman had previously suggested the meeting would likely take place after that.
As president, Trump has met Putin briefly twice before. The first time, the two talked one-on-one for two hours during the G20 summit in Germany in July 2017. They met, again, on the sidelines of a November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam. But this will be the first full-fledged, bilateral summit between the two country's presidents since former President Barack Obama met then- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2013.
For Trump, sitting down with Putin is expected to be fraught with controversy, coming as the special counsel investigation continues into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The Trump-Putin summit also comes amid worries about Russia's behavior from some of the United States' traditional European allies.
Relations between the U.S. and Europe with Russia have been spiraling downward since the Ukraine crisis began in 2014 and recently have only worsened amid clashes over Russia's involvement in Syria, and the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in the United Kingdom.
Critics have therefore warned that the U.S. risks rewarding Putin with a summit while receiving little in return, expressing concern that the Russian leader sees the meeting as a chance to promote himself as a global leader and to dispel the image of Russia's international isolation. Some Russia-watchers see a danger that the summit could be a repeat of the one with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Singapore recently, which they say produced little concrete -- despite the hype.
“The summit can be a good idea if President Trump is well-prepared and if he’s prepared to be candid in confronting Putin on some of the problems in the relationship,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who's now at the Brookings Institution. “What worries me is I’m not sure he’s going to do either of those things."
On Wednesday, Bolton defended the decision to hold the summit, saying that it was necessary given the long period since the two sides had met at such a high-level and given the current tensions. He said he saw nothing unusual in Trump meeting with Putin, noting that the leaders of most major European countries had met with Putin last year.
"There are a wide range of issues despite the differences between us where both President Trump and President Putin think they may be able to find constructive solutions. I’d like to hear someone say that’s a bad idea,” Bolton said at the news conference.
But he suggested that the summit was unlikely to produce “specific outcomes," instead suggesting that it would be a chance for the leaders to restart communications between the two countries and re-engage over key issues.
"I think the fact of the summit itself is a deliverable," Bolton said. "I don’t think we necessarily expect specific outcomes or decisions. It’s important after the length of time that’s gone by without bilateral summit like this, to allow them to cover all the issues that they choose. And I don’t exclude that they will reach concrete agreements and results."
Among the issues, Trump and Putin are expected to discuss are nuclear arms control, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as sanctions imposed on Russia over Crimea. Key arms agreements between Russia and the U.S. from the Cold War, in particular, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), have been fraying recently, as both sides accuse each other of violations. Asked whether the summit could try to reaffirm those treaties, Bolton was noncommittal.
He also hit back at suggestions it would be inappropriate for Trump to meet with Putin given the continuing investigation into possible collusion with Russia by his campaign, appearing to call the suspicions "nonsense" surrounding so-called "Russia-gate."
“I think a lot of people have said or implied over time that a meeting between President Trump and President Putin would somehow prove some kind of nexus between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which is complete nonsense,” Bolton said.
"He judges that it is something he needs to do and will do, regardless of political criticism.”
Among those who had been warning against such a summit though until recently had been Bolton himself. Bolton is known for his hawkish views on Russia and in an opinion article written in The Daily Telegraph in July 2017, before his March appointment as a national security advisor, Bolton wrote you "negotiate with today's Russia at your peril." In the same article, he also called Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election a "true act of war" and wrote that Putin had lied to Trump at their first meeting when he denied Russia's involvement.
In Moscow, Bolton used a defense he has made regularly when confronted his past opinions, saying he does not comment on them.
"I love the First Amendment, even in Moscow," he said. "The fact is it's important for the leaders of these two countries to meet.”
He added that Russia's meddling in 2016 had come up in his meeting with Putin and he expected Putin and Trump would discuss it.
Prior to Bolton's trip, some had questioned how he would be received in Moscow given his reputation as a hardliner on Russia. But Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said that Bolton's unabashed hawkishness might actually make him an easier interlocutor for the Kremlin.
"Russia historically likes talking to hawks. They feel like they are getting the real deal and less of the sunshine and butterflies and the deceit that they feel they are getting when Americans start talking about things like international law," Rojansky said by phone on Tuesday.
Meeting with Bolton Wednesday, Putin welcomed him saying he hoped his visit signaled “we can make at least the first steps towards restoring full-format relations.”
Many observers are skeptical that something substantial can come out of the summit. But Pifer said that if the meeting was well-prepared it could have the potential to stimulate some movement and contacts between Russia and the U.S. on issues that have otherwise stalled, in particular, arms control. But he warned that if the meeting produced no concrete outcomes it favored Putin.
“As with Kim, just having a meeting is a plus for Putin," Pifer said. "At the end of the day, if he has that meeting and there is no specific outcome, I think the Kremlin would still regard that as a win."