By Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason
HAMBURG (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a veteran businessman and a former spy, shook hands on Friday ahead of the most highly anticipated face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
Trump has said he wants to find ways to work with Putin, a goal made more difficult by sharp differences over Russia’s actions in Syria and Ukraine, and allegations Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The two men met during an informal gathering of G20 leaders at the start of the summit, with the U.S. president reinforcing their handshake by patting the Russian leader on the arm.
In a video of the encounter, Trump was later shown patting Putin on the back. Both men smiled. They are to hold a formal meeting later in the day at 3:45 p.m. local time, when every facial expression and physical gesture is likely to be analyzed.
“I look forward to all meetings today with world leaders, including my meeting with Vladimir Putin. Much to discuss,” Trump wrote in a tweet on Friday. “I will represent our country well and fight for its interests!”
The meeting is slated to begin shortly after a G20 working session on climate and energy starts. Trump, who has angered world leaders with his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accord on climate change, will likely have to leave that session early to make the Russia meeting.
Some fear the Republican president, a political novice whose team is still developing its Russia policy, will be less prepared for their sit-down than Putin, who has dealt with the last two U.S. presidents and scores of other world leaders.
“There’s nothing … the Kremlin would like to see more than a (U.S.) president who will settle for a grip and a grin and walk away saying that he had this fabulous meeting with the Kremlin autocrat,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on MSNBC.
As investigations at home continue into whether there was any collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, the U.S. president has come under pressure to take a hard line against the Kremlin.
Moscow has denied any interference and Trump says his campaign did not collude with Russia.
On Thursday, Trump won praise from at least one Republican hawk in the U.S. Congress after a speech in Warsaw in which he urged Russia to stop its “destabilizing activities” and end its support for Syria and Iran. The remarks were among Trump’s sharpest about Moscow since becoming president, though they stopped short of any personal criticism of Putin.
“This is a great start to an important week of American foreign policy,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has often been critical of Trump on security issues.
Putin had been fully briefed about Trump’s description of Moscow’s behavior as destabilizing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding he would take that and other remarks by U.S. officials into account.
Still, Trump declined on Thursday to say definitively whether he believed U.S. intelligence officials’ assertion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I think it was Russia but I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure,” Trump told a Warsaw news conference.
Ahead of Trump’s meeting with Putin, three U.S. senators wrote to Trump to express “deep concern” about reports that his administration planned to discuss the return to Russia of diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York that were seized by the Obama administration last year in response to alleged Russian election meddling.
Republican Senators Johnny Isakson and Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said returning the facilities would “embolden” Putin and encourage further efforts by Russia to interfere in Western elections. All three are on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The White House declined to offer details on what Trump would request of Putin and what he might offer in exchange for cooperation.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump wanted to talk about how the two countries can work together to stabilize war-ravaged Syria.
“The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on-the-ground ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Tillerson said before leaving the United States to join Trump in Germany.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Denis Dyomkin in Hamburg; Editing by Ralph Boulton)