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Trump expected to bring up Syria and Ukraine in Putin meeting, but not Russian election hacking

Donald Trump will soon come face-to-face with the man US intelligence services believe directed an unprecedented plot to meddle in the US election and help Mr Trump take power, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is believed that the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine will be the main talking points. But it is uncertain whether Mr Trump will bring up that election interference when he meets with Mr Putin later this week at the G20 summit in Germany, with the Russian President denying any involvement in the hacking from the Kremlin.

Mr Trump warmed up his visit to Hamburg by speaking to both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni over the telephone on Monday. Ms Merkel has made clear her displeasure at the US pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement, and climate was one of the main topics on the call – with the potential for a clash over the issue at the summit.

However, it is the sideline meeting with Mr Putin that is the main attraction at the summit for many. Mr Trump – facing several investigations into any possible links between his campaign team and Russia as well as the election hacking – has a difficult task. Appear too friendly and critics will leap on the meeting as an example of Mr Trump being too much of a soft touch with Mr Putin and the Kremlin. However, be too frosty and a chance may be lost to try and repair relations that the US President has admitted are at a low.

But, it is not clear whether this will even be the first meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin. During a presidential debate in October, Mr Trump denied that he has ever met the Russian President, despite having claimed several times in the past that they have crossed paths. Mr Trump has previously praised Mr Putin in public, and the Russian president has described the US leader as “bright and talented”.

The White House has, perhaps understandably, been cagey about discussing the subject matters potentially on the table. Two Trump administration officials told CNN that the main issues will be the situation in Ukraine, with Russia’s actions in annexing Crimea from the country in 2014 amid a continuing conflict leading in US sanctions, and the complex civil war in Syria.

Mr Trump’s national security advisor HR McMaster told reporters last week: “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”

Mr McMaster did say administration officials had instructed to draw up options to confront Russia over “destabilising behaviour” such as cyber threats and political subversion. Other topics of conversation could include how the two countries might cooperate over North Korea.

While the White House has mostly been tight-lipped about what the two leaders will discuss in Germany, the Russians have offered more hints.

The Kremlin has said Mr Putin will demand the return of two diplomatic compounds that were closed by the US last December as part of the retaliation over the election meddling.

The Russian President’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said on Monday that his government had shown “unusual flexibility” by not retaliating when then-President Obama confiscated the two compounds in New York state and Maryland and expelled 35 Russian diplomats, but that Moscow’s patience “has its limits”.

Mr Ushakov urged Washington to “free Russia from the need to take retaliatory moves”.

The compounds were formally used by the Russian embassy as recreational facilities, but US intelligence agencies have asserted they were bases for espionage.

A statement from the Russian government said the Kremlin expected that Mr Putin would convey the need to find the “most rapid resolution” on the issue, describing it as an “irritant” in Russian-US relations.

During Mr Obama’s presidency, relations between Moscow and Washington were described as their worst since the Cold War – and they do not appear to have warmed much under the Trump administration.

However, the Kremlin also listed areas in which it believes Russia could cooperate with the US. These issues include Russia’s dissatisfaction with US sanctions, its desire to cooperate on international terrorism, the crisis in Syria and improving efforts around nuclear arms control.

There is “significant potential for coordinating efforts”, the Kremlin said, adding “our countries can do much together in resolving regional crises”.

In Syria, Russia and the US are on opposite sides of the war, with the Kremlin supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last month, Russian officials threatened to treat US-led coalition planes flying in Syria, west of the Euphrates River, as targets after the US shot down a fighter jet belonging Syrian Government.

But not all may be lost, with work already beginning on ties ahead of the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, under immense scrutiny in the US over his contacts with Trump campaign associates as part of the Congressional investigations into Russia, met in Washington with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon on Monday that focused partly on preparations for the G20 summit meeting

Mr Shannon and Mr Kislyak also used their meeting to discuss the possibility of a new meeting between Mr Shannon and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, the State Department said, a move that would signal the two powers were again focused on trying to establish a functioning relationship. It was unclear after their lunchtime meeting if and when such a meeting would take place.

Mr Ryabkov and Shannon had been slated to host an ongoing series of discussions aimed at addressing irritants that have thwarted efforts to get the US-Russia relationship back on track. The goal was to resolve smaller issues first in hopes of restoring a base level of trust that could clear the way for broader discussions about Syria, Ukraine and other global crises. But Moscow nixed the second session last month to protest against new Trump administration sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.