By Doina Chiacu and Andrew Osborn
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit on July 16 in Helsinki, a venue famed for its Cold War diplomacy, with nervous U.S. allies in Europe and Russia skeptics looking on.
The Kremlin and the White House simultaneously announced the place and date of the summit a day after striking a deal to hold a meeting following a visit to Moscow by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton."The two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues," the White House said in a statement similar to one released by the Kremlin.
Trump will meet Putin after attending a July 11-12 summit of NATO leaders and making a visit to Britain. The summit's date will give Putin a chance to attend the July 15 closing ceremony of the soccer World Cup which his country is hosting.
The two leaders have met twice before on the sidelines of international gatherings and spoken at least eight times by phone. They have also made positive comments about each other now and then with Putin lauding Trump's handling of the economy.
Their summit could irritate U.S. allies however who want to isolate Putin, such as Britain, or countries like Ukraine who are nervous about what they see as Trump's overly friendly attitude toward the Russian leader.
It is also likely to go down badly among critics who question Trump's commitment to the NATO alliance and who have been concerned about his frictions with longtime allies such as Canada and Germany over trade.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg played down worries about the summit on Monday, saying it was in line with the alliance's own policies which advocated dialogue with Moscow.
Others were less sanguine.
"There is unease about this meeting, just as there is unease about Trump," said one senior NATO diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the subject's sensitivity.
"What is he going to say, what is his preparation, is he aware of the symbolism? U.S. containment of Russia is going further than Europe would want ... but if Trump then strikes up a friendship with Putin, it could leave us more in the dark about U.S. policy," the diplomat added.
There is likely to be some unease in Ukraine, which wants Russia to return the annexed Crimea region and for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to hand back control of a huge chunk of territory.
The Ukrainian presidential administration did not reply to a request for comment, but political analysts there said Russia was unlikely to consider a deal on Ukraine until after Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
"There will be no sensational results," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst. "At the moment there are no obvious preconditions for any kind of compromise."
Trump has long expressed a desire for better relations with Russia, even as Washington tightens sanctions, and the Kremlin has long pushed for a summit.
Moscow made no secret on Wednesday of its delight that such a meeting had finally been agreed with Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov saying on Wednesday that the two men were likely to talk for several hours. He spoke of a possible joint declaration on improving U.S.-Russia relations and international security.
Trump congratulated Putin by phone in March after the Russian leader's landslide re-election victory.
But since then, already poor ties between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated over the conflict in Syria and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which prompted big diplomatic expulsions in both countries.
Expectations for a summit are therefore low.
A special counsel in the United States has indicted Russian firms and individuals as part of a probe into possible collusion between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Trump denies wrongdoing and calls the investigation a "witch hunt".
The U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Moscow sought to interfere in that campaign to tilt the election in Trump's favor has also been hanging over relations with Russia since Trump took office in January last year.
Bolton told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday he expected Russian interference in U.S. politics to be discussed at the summit and said he did not rule out Trump discussing Russia rejoining the Group of Seven industrialized countries to make it the G8 again.
After Trump and Putin met briefly in Vietnam in November 2017, Trump was criticized in the United States for saying he believed Putin when the Russian president denied accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
In a Twitter post on Thursday before the Helsinki meeting was announced, Trump again appeared to cast doubt on Russian involvement. "Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!" he wrote.
In Washington, the tweet drew rebukes from Democrats and at least one of Trump's fellow Republicans.
"Of course #Putin continues to deny interfering in our elections. But he did. That is not a matter of opinion, it is an indisputable FACT," Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote.
Democrats said the meeting was a gift to the Kremlin and worried what else Trump might give away.
“If anything should happen at this meeting, President Trump must inform Putin of his intent to aggressively implement the tough sanctions that the Congress passed last year, on a nearly unanimous basis, and tell Putin we will no longer stand by while he works to destabilize and harm us and our NATO allies," said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was best not to get too excited about what the summit might yield.
"In general, I'd recommend everyone not to use phrases like 'breakthroughs' and such like," the RIA news agency cited her as saying. "I suggest taking quite a pragmatic and realistic view of these meetings."
The summit is a boost for Finland, however, whose capital played host to major Cold War summits between leaders such as Leonid Breznhev and Gerald Ford in 1975 and Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush in 1990 before going on to host a meeting between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in 1997.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said Russia and the United States had only been in touch with him about the summit last week and said he hoped that Putin and Trump would discuss arms control and heed his own concerns about tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
"Even small steps in reducing tensions would be in everybody’s interest," he said.
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Alessandra Prentice in Kiev and Stine Jacobsen in Helsinki; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Frances Kerry, William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)