Saudi visit shows Putin’s deepening Middle East influence

By Olesya Astakhova and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin signaled Moscow’s growing Middle East clout on Monday by visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in over a decade, buoyed by Russian military gains in Syria, strong ties with Riyadh’s regional rivals and energy cooperation.

Moscow accrued power in the Middle East in 2015 by sending troops to Syria, where it and Iran have been key backers of President Bashar al-Assad amid civil war, while the United States pulled back. Saudi Arabia sided with Syrian rebels.

On the eve of Putin’s trip, U.S. troops were abruptly retreating from northern Syria as Russian-backed government forces deployed deep inside Kurdish-held territory under a deal to help fend off a Turkish cross-border offensive.

Russia has also strengthened ties with both Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which are locked in a decades-old contest for influence that veered towards open conflict after a recent spate of attacks on oil assets in the Gulf that Riyadh and Washington blame on Tehran. Iran denies the charges.

Tensions with Iran, which is locked in several proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, have risen to new highs after Washington last year quit a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran and re-imposed sanctions.

The Russian president, accompanied by his energy minister and head of Russia’s wealth fund, met King Salman at his palace along with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Putin says he has friendly relations.

Deepening ties have seen non-OPEC Russia, once regarded as a rival in oil markets, join OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia in forming an alliance known as OPEC+ to support crude prices by restraining output.

At a morning forum convening 300 Saudi and Russian CEOs, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said OPEC+ countries were showing high commitments to the deal, and his Russian counterpart said there were no talks underway to change it.

Ahead of the visit, Putin, who offered to provide Russian defense systems to the kingdom after Sept. 14 attacks on its oil facilities, said he could also play a positive role in easing tensions with Tehran given good ties with both sides.

Any progress on long-mulled Saudi plans to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would cause disquiet in Washington, which is sending 3,000 troops and additional air defense systems to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump has resisted pressure to sanction Riyadh over human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calling that a “foolish” move that would only benefit competitors Russia and China.

OIL AND INVESTMENTS

Asked about concerns Riyadh was cozying up to Moscow, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said he saw no contradiction.

“We don’t believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States,” he told reporters on Sunday. “We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia.”

Russian and Saudi flags lined Riyadh streets ahead of Putin’s one-day visit, which includes an evening performance by Russia’s Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Putin then travels to the United Arab Emirates.

In meetings with Saudi leaders, the Russian president will discuss the OPEC+ pact, which has seen production cut by 1.2 million barrels per day since January.

The two sides are expected to sign more than $2 billion of deals, including a joint investment by state oil giant Saudi Aramco and Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund.

RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said a number of Russian investors were interested in a planned initial public offering of Aramco. The oil major could sell 1-2% through a local listing its chairman said would be announced “very, very soon”, ahead of a potential international offering.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia’s Gazprom is interested in cooperating with Saudi firms on natural gas.

Moscow, the world’s largest wheat exporter, made some progress in accessing the Saudi and Middle Eastern markets when the kingdom agreed in August to relax specifications for wheat imports, opening the door to Black Sea imports.

RDIF and Saudi Arabia’s SALIC plan to sign an agreement to jointly search for investment projects in Russia’s agricultural sector, a source told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Dahlia Nehme in Dubai and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, William Maclean)

Trump cancels Putin meeting over Ukraine crisis

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs on travel to the G20 Summit in Argentina from the White House in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday suddenly canceled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for this week’s Group of 20 industrialized nations summit in Argentina, citing the current Ukraine crisis.

“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” Trump tweeted after departing for the G20 summit.

Trump’s tweet was a sudden turnaround. Roughly an hour earlier, he had told reporters he would probably meet with Putin at the summit and said it was “a very good time to have the meeting.”

But Trump had also said he would get a final report during the flight to Argentina on the tension in the region after Russia seized Ukrainian vessels near Crimea on Sunday.

Differences over Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s role in the civil war in Syria, have been an irritant in U.S.-Russian relations for years.

The administration of former President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. That in part brought ties between Washington and Moscow to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Since then, the United States has investigated Russia’s possible interference in the 2016 presidential election that Trump won. Russia has denied meddling and Trump has repeatedly said there was no collusion.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

White House invites Putin to Washington

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – The White House has formally invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Friday, returning to an idea that was put on hold in July amid anger in the U.S. over the prospect of such a summit.

President Donald Trump held a summit with Putin in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and then issued Putin an invitation to visit Washington in the autumn. But that was postponed after Trump faced allegations of cozying up to the Kremlin.

“We have invited President Putin to Washington,” Bolton said at a news conference during a visit to ex-Soviet Georgia, days after meeting Putin and senior security officials in Moscow.

Bolton said he gave Putin an invitation to visit next year during his trip to Moscow, U.S. broadcaster RFE/RL reported.

It was not immediately clear if Putin had accepted the invitation. Putin last held a meeting with a U.S. president on American soil in 2015 when he met Barack Obama on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly.

Trump’s earlier invitation to Putin sparked an outcry in Washington, including from lawmakers in Trump’s Republican party, who argued that Putin was an adversary not worthy of a White House visit.

The topic of Putin visiting the United States is a highly-charged one, because U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win. Russia denies any election meddling.

Trump has said it is in U.S. interests to establish a solid working relationship with Putin.

Trump and Putin plan to hold a bilateral meeting in Paris on Nov. 11 on the sidelines of events to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War One.

Bolton said that the Paris meeting would be brief.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Robin Pomeroy, William Maclean)

Trump to talk to Russia’s Putin about substantially reducing nuclear weapons

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, near Aylesbury, Britain, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

CHEQUERS, England (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he would discuss substantial reductions to nuclear weapons when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.

“The proliferation is a tremendous, I mean to me, it’s the biggest problem in the world, nuclear weapons, biggest problem in the world,” Trump said alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Chequers country residence.

“If we can do something to substantially reduce them, I mean, ideally get rid of them, maybe that’s a dream, but certainly it’s a subject that I’ll be bringing up with him,” Trump said of his upcoming meeting with Putin.

Trump added: “It’s also a very expensive thing but that’s the least important.”

The United States and Russia are by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers.

Trump cautioned that it was hard to do substantive deals with Russia because his opponents would say that he was too pro-Russian.

“We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but it makes it very hard to do something with Russia because, anything you do, it’s like: ‘Russia, oh he loves Russia’,” Trump said. “I love the United States but I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries.”

Though Trump has not so far given specific details about what nuclear arms control treaties they would like to talk about, he and Putin are likely to discuss the possibility of extending the “New Start” treaty – a pillar of arms control.

They are also likely to discuss what to do about another pact known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) to try to dampen a high-risk nuclear rivalry between the two former Cold War foes.

Ahead of the summit, Russian diplomats have stressed the need for strategic stability talks, saying existing arms control treaties are fraying at the edges and they fear Washington will withdraw from the INF treaty. Both sides accuse one another of violating the treaty.

New Start, signed in 2010, requires both nations to cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, the lowest level in decades.

The treaty, which also limits deployed land- and submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers, expires in February 2021, but can be extended by five years if both sides agree.

A U.S. official said Trump would be ready to talk about New Start if Putin raised it, but it was not a big U.S. priority.

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, required both sides to eliminate their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (310 and 3,420 miles).

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, additional reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

Trump-Putin summit to unfold in Cold War venue Helsinki on July 16

The Market Square and the Presidential palace pictured in Helsinki, Finland on June 28, 2018. U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet in Helsinki, the capital of Finland on July 16, 2018. LEHTIKUVA / Onni Ojala/via REUTERS

By Doina Chiacu and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit on July 16 in Helsinki, a renowned venue for Cold War diplomacy, with nervous U.S. allies in Europe and Russia skeptics looking on.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

The Kremlin and the White House simultaneously announced the place and date of the summit a day after striking a deal on holding the meeting following a visit to Moscow on Wednesday 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 from time to time with Putin praising 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.

LOW EXPECTATIONS

Trump has long expressed a desire for better relations with Moscow, even as Washington tightens sanctions, and the Kremlin has long pushed for a summit.

It made no secret on Wednesday of its delight that such a meeting had finally been agreed with Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov saying 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 sparked 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 on Wednesday, Trump listed Syria and Ukraine as being among the many subjects he would discuss with Putin.

(Additonal reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow, Editing by Toby Chopra and Frances Kerry, William Maclean)