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On second Europe trip, will Trump mend fences or further strain ties?

Thursday - 06/07/2017 12:08
US President Donald Trump arrives in Poland on Wednesday for the first leg of a European trip that will culminate in a weekend bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit.

US officials said that Trump’s visit to Warsaw will be aimed at underscoring his personal commitment to NATO in a key speech ahead of a G20 summit in Hamburg starting on Friday.

“He will lay out a vision not only for America’s future relationship with Europe, but the future of our transatlantic alliance and what that means for American security and American prosperity,” Trump’s national security adviser, HR McMaster, told reporters last week.

“He will praise Polish courage throughout history’s darkest hour and celebrate Poland’s emergence as a European power,” McMaster said.

The speech will be symbolically significant, given Poland’s proximity to Russia and regional fears about Moscow’s ambitions following its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

“The threat that Russia poses cannot be overstated,” Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Piotr Wilczek, told reporters last week. “Now is the time for allied solidarity.”

>> Read more: Trump irritates allies and returns to brewing crisis in US

Poland hosts almost 1,000 US troops and is interested in buying liquefied natural gas from US companies to offset its reliance on Russian gas supplies. The country's right-wing populist government also takes a similar approach to Trump on issues ranging from immigration to the environment. But so far Washington has failed to reciprocate Polish affability by reiterating guarantees of US support in the event of Russian aggression.

Trump will meet Thursday morning with Polish President Andrzej Duda and attend a Three Seas Initiative summit of Central European leaders, most of whom represent one-time Soviet bloc nations.

In preparing for the trip, Trump spoke Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Facing Putin 

Trump rattled US allies on his first European visit in May when he failed to reiterate the US commitment to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause – which states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all – and for scolding NATO member states in Brussels for failing to spend enough on defence. He also slammed Germany for its US trade surplus.

Merkel prompted a flurry of speculation when she stated bluntly after Trump’s trip that Europe would have to take its destiny into its own hands in the face of an apparent US withdrawal from a global leadership role.

>> Read more: Merkel's blunt speech sparks fears of rupture in transatlantic pact

Trump is under pressure at home to take a tough line in his first face-to-face meeting with Putin on a number of issues, from Moscow’s continued support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war to snowballing evidence of Russian meddling in last year’s US presidential election.

McMaster told reporters that there was “no specific agenda” in place for Trump's talks with Putin.

“Our relationship with Russia is no different than any other country,” he said.

McMaster went on to say that Trump supported doing "what is necessary to confront Russia's destabilising behaviour", adding: “We’re engaged in wide-ranging discussions about irritants and problems in the relationship and areas to explore common interests and opportunities."

Some analysts note that Trump will need to walk a fine line when he meets the Russian leader, who has a well-earned reputation as an authoritarian. "Trump needs to be polite but firm and not too friendly," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, in comments to AFP.

"If he wants to improve US-Russia relations down the road, he needs to convey the gravity of his concerns about recent Russian behaviour first," O'Hanlon said. "Otherwise, Putin may think he's a pushover, and the Congress will rise in opposition to Trump's Russia policy."

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the US intelligence community's assertions of Russian election interference as "fake news" and a "witch hunt". But the allegations gained renewed prominence last month after Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey, who was leading the investigation into possible coordination between members of the Trump campaign and Russian interests. A day later, Trump revealed highly sensitive Israeli counter-terrorism intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting, sparking criticism from both within the US and abroad.

Trump and several associates – including former national security adviser Michael Flynn – remain under investigation by both the House and Senate intelligence committees and special counsel Robert Mueller for their alleged ties to Russia.

Trump will also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit for talks likely to focus on North Korean claims that it had successfully test launched an intercontinental ballistic missile this week.

German authorities say they are expecting up to 100,000 protesters to mobilise for the summit in Hamburg over the weekend.

Trump will be back in Europe to take part in Bastille Day festivities on July 14 alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)

 Key: Russia, NATO, US, G20 summit

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