Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin put Syria at the centre of push to revive diplomatic relations yesterday after a one-on-one meeting in Helsinki ended in declarations of unity.
After long engagement that included more than two hours face-to-face with only interpreters present, the two said they had open and productive talks.
Both highlighted joint work against nuclear proliferation and containing Iran, and addressed energy prices and the Syria conflict. Mr Putin said this would include a specific focus on humanitarian relief that would also include Europe.
Mr Trump said there was common ground on the dangers posed by Iranian involvement in Syria.
“Co-operation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said. “Iran will not benefit from the success of our campaign against ISIS.
“Both countries could work jointly. Look at the progress in certain sectors to the eradication of ISIS, some of which Russia has co-operated with.
“If we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into shelter on a humanitarian basis, I think we can do that.”
Mr Putin appeared to hint that diplomats could launch a joint effort to bring the civil war to a close. He said he had discussed a humanitarian aid increase with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday to reverse the refugee crisis.
“We talked about Syria,” Mr Putin said. “Resolving the situation in Syria could be an example of how international crisis could be removed and resolved.”
But there is reason for scepticism. The last deal agreed to by the US and Russia for Syria was for de-escalation zones that quickly became ineffective.
Both men yesterday denied that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. Mr Putin offered to grant access to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the vote.
Mr Trump even contradicted Dan Coats, the director of CIA, who had said Russia was implicated. “I don’t see any reason why it should be,” he said.
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Mr Trump seemed to absolve Mr Putin on accusations of meddling in US politics. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he said.
However Mr Putin said Russian investigators would need reciprocal access, particularly to Bill Browder, the US investor who has campaigned against Russia’s leader over the past decade.
Mr Putin scoffed at a suggestion that Moscow had any compromising material on Mr Trump. “It’s hard to imagine greater nonsense,” he said.
Overall, Mr Trump said the meeting was in the tradition of “bold diplomacy” that dated back to the earliest days of the American republic.
“Even during the tensions of the Cold War, when the world looked much different than it does today, Russia and the US were able to maintain a strong dialogue,” he said.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”
The two men had also earlier presided over a lunch for officials in the Hall of Mirrors in Helsinki’s Presidentinlinna, a palace built for Tsar Nicholas I when Finland was part of the Russian empire.
Much was left out of the presidential talking points. The US leader failed to make mention of Crimea. Even before the talks there was a clear demonstration that Mr Trump does not make detailed preparations for summits.
Speaking to his host, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, he appeared to believe the country was a member of Nato. Formerly neutral, Finland is in the EU but not formally a Nato member.
While waiting for the Russian leader to arrive – Mr Putin was an hour late in one of many acts of gamesmanship surrounding the meeting – the US leader blamed his own country for the poor relations between the two countries.
The fault lay in “many years of US foolishness and stupidity”, the president wrote on Twitter. Russia’s Foreign Ministry promptly tweeted back its agreement.
Russia experts and security analysts led a chorus of commentary that betrayed frustration and fear.
“What was the point?” said Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who served as former president Barack Obama’s defence secretary. “The strategic purpose of going into it?
“This is not a transactional issue like a real estate deal or an Apprentice-like show business appearance. There has to be preparation.”
Russia hawks warned of unmerited concessions from the US to the Kremlin.
“Tell me again how this ‘diplomacy’ advances US national interests,” said Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Moscow.
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The timing of the meeting could not have been less auspicious for Mr Trump after the FBI indicted 12 suspected Russian agents on Friday on allegations of meddling in the US presidential elections.
It came after a Nato summit where Mr Trump forced the alliance into an emergency session after he demanded new commitments on defence spending, hinting that the US could withdraw.
For Mr Putin, the trip to Helsinki capped a happy five weeks in which Russia staged the football World Cup to widespread acclaim.
He gave a football to Mr Trump, who revealed he had watched several “soccer games”.