After their scheduled one-to-one private talks, which are expected to last for about half an hour, the two leaders will then be joined in Helsinki by government officials for an expanded summit, before taking questions from US and Russian media in a joint press conference.
In advance of the meeting, a major concern in the United States is how forcefully Trump will confront Putin in the wake of new information released in Washington, DC, this week over alleged Russian cyberattacks during the 2016 presidential vote. Putin has denied Russian meddling in the election, which was won by Trump.
US Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday unveiled formal charges against 12 Russian GRU intelligence agents who “conducted large-scale cyber operations to interfere” with the election – from phishing to malware and Bitcoin mining to copy, steal and release emails and data from the political campaign of Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
“The summit will fail, or will be viewed as a failure, if the president of the United States does not – either in the press conference or in Helsinki – publicly announce that the Russians have been interfering in our political system and in our elections and that there will be consequences if they don’t stop,” Aaron David Miller, an analyst at the Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera.
Embattled by domestic politics at home, Trump argued publicly with Washington’s allies in Europe in the lead-up to meeting Putin, whom the US president – unlike other world leaders – has never criticised or challenged publicly.
How Trump and Putin handle the latest revelations of the alleged Russian cyberattacks will overshadow and could well foreclose any new cooperation on the conflict in Syria, nuclear talks with North Korea or actions the Russian president might take that could lead to lifting the West’s economic sanctions against Moscow.
Trump deflects criticism
The timing of the latest charges sparked outrage among Republicans in Congress, who had been promoting claims that anti-Trump bias by FBI agents improperly influenced Mueller’s probe into the alleged Russian hacking and contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign ahead of the election.
Senior figures within the Democratic Party called on Trump to both call off the Helsinki meeting and demand retribution from Putin. “Cancel the Putin meeting. Now,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Former ambassador Nicholas Burns, a critic of Trump’s foreign policy who held State Department positions in the George W Bush administration, tweeted: “Key issue for Trump-Putin Summit – Putin fired the first salvo in a new cyber war against the US in 2016. Trump has never acknowledged the attack, never responded to it. Putin has not paid a price. Trump needs to do his job + defend our country.”
Trump deflected the criticism, saying in a tweet that the Russian hack had occurred during the Obama administration.
“Why didn’t Obama do something about? Because he thought Crooked Hillary Clinton would win, that’s why. Had nothing to do with the Trump Administration but Fake News doesn’t want to report the truth, as usual!” he wrote.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump had publicly encouraged Moscow to hack Clinton’s emails, saying at an event: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” a reference to Clinton’s controversial use of private, non-governmental email server while she was US secretary of state.
On that same day, Russian agents attempted to phish the emails of Clinton’s personal office and 76 email addresses belonging to her campaign, the Mueller charges reveal.
Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki follows a European tour in which the US president bickered with European allies at a NATO summit in Brussels and publicly criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy in the UK where his visit was met by large protests.
Speaking to The Sun newspaper, owned by Trump ally Rupert Murdoch, Trump criticised May for adopting a soft Brexit blueprint and threatened that the US would not do a separate trade deal with Britain.
Trump later attempted to disavow his words, calling the interview “fake news” after it proved embarrassing during his meeting with May.
The US president also said he had “low expectations” for the meeting with Putin in a television interview with CBS News recorded at his golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland.
Trump reiterated criticism of Germany for its gas pipeline agreement with Russia and said that “the European Union is a foe” for taking advantage of the US in trade relations.
“Alliances are based on perceptions of trust and confidence and reliability, and you don’t have that now with the Europeans,” Miller, the Wilson Center analyst, said.
“Not only that, an argument could be made that some of his comments in Britain suggest that he is out to undermine the very concept of a liberal democratic, pluralistic world order.
“That in combination with meeting with Putin, and the rise in populism and authoritarianism, clearly suggest that this man has a view of the world – muscular, unilateral, zero-sum game, transactional. It’s exceedingly harmful,” Miller said.