Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used a series of talks with global leaders at the Group of 20 summit on Friday to strengthen old alliances and try to soothe tensions with rivals.
Putin used his meetings with the leaders of China and India to find common ground on issues such as opposing protectionism, while his long-delayed talks with the American and British leaders likelier touched on thornier issues.
Putin’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, their first full-fledged talks since their 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, was watched closely for the impact it may have on troubled U.S.-Russia ties.
The Russian leader laughed when a reporter shouted about warning Putin “not to meddle” in the 2020 U.S. election and Trump waggishly said: “Don’t meddle in the election.”
Putin has denied meddling in the 2016 U.S. vote despite the abundant evidence to the contrary uncovered by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Russian president has charged that Russia-U.S. relations are now hostage to the U.S. political infighting, making any quick progress unlikely.
New rounds of anti-Russia sanctions followed the Helsinki meeting, and Trump later announced the withdrawal from a key arms control pact signed in 1987 with the then Soviet Union. Putin followed suit. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is set to terminate this summer, raising fears of a new arms race.
Putin has denounced the U.S. policies, but avoided personal criticism of Trump in an apparent hope of negotiating a rapprochement.
He extensively praised Trump in an interview with the Financial Times published just before the summit, saying that the U.S. president’s policies, such as building a wall on the border with Mexico, reflected his keen understanding of the issues that are important to voters.
“Ordinary U.S. citizens who feel concerned look at it and say: ‘He’s a great guy; he’s at least trying to propose a solution,’” Putin said.
Details of the Putin-Trump talks weren’t immediately known. The White House said the leaders discussed bilateral relations, arms control, as well as the situations in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine. The Kremlin has kept mum about the meeting.
In another closely-watched encounter, Putin met with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May for the first time since 2016.
The long break reflected a bitter strain in ties, which plummeted over the March 4, 2018, nerve agent attack on double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the city of Salisbury. They spent weeks in critical condition, but recovered.
Britain has accused Russia of poisoning them with the nerve agent Novichok, accusations Moscow has denied. In a tough note before the meeting, May said that Britain will push for the two Russian military intelligence officers accused of involvement in the attack to be brought to justice.
In the Financial Times interview, Putin again insisted that Russia had nothing to do with the poisoning and argued that bilateral ties are far more important than “the fuss about spies not worth five copecks.”
The two leaders remained silent as they shook hands at the start of their meeting Friday. According to Downing Street, May told Putin “there cannot be a normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia stops the irresponsible and destabilising activity.”
While Putin’s meetings with Trump and May drew the most attention, the Russian president also worked quietly to cement existing alliances. He sat down for talks with leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa, which together with Russia make up the BRICS group.
Later in the day, Putin also met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to emphasize their shared opposition to protectionism and unilateral sanctions. Putin emphasized that the three countries agree on the need to rely on international law, respect national sovereignty and refrain from interference in internal affairs of other nations.
He added that they have held meetings of foreign ministers and top security officials to coordinate action against terrorism, drug trafficking and other challenges. Putin noted that Russia, China and India firmly oppose protectionism, unilateral actions and unlawful sanctions.