DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is going to be sitting down with Russia's President Vladimir Putin today in Helsinki, Finland, for a long-awaited summit.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah. Trump's very open admiration of Putin has raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of questions, especially because the president has also been criticizing longtime U.S. allies. Now, in Russia, the meeting is seen as a chance to reset relations that have been tense since Russia's 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. As if all of this was not enough, last Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
GREENE: All right, there is the backdrop for the summit meeting. And we have two members of NPR's team in Helsinki joining us - White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and our Moscow-based correspondent Lucian Kim. Hello to you both.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Ayesha, I want to start with you. I mean, we've covered summits before. Many of them are planned, like, down to the minute. But President Trump says this is going to be a loose meeting. What exactly does he mean by that?
RASCOE: So basically that there's no set agenda. And it will all depend on what Trump and Putin want to talk about. The leaders will first meet one-on-one, and then they'll do a larger expanded meeting. Trump has said he will question Putin about election interference, and he may ask about extradition of the indicted Russians. But Trump really hasn't criticized the Russians or Russia since the indictments were announced. Some other areas that they may touch on include Russia's involvement in Syria and the Ukraine and possibly some kind of new arms control deal.
GREENE: Yeah. And we should say - I mean, these indictments were of military intelligence officers in Russia's government. So it's striking that we haven't heard a lot from President Trump since those indictments came down. Lucian, I want to turn to you. There is a lot of worry among Democrats and other Trump critics in the United States that President Trump might be getting played by Putin in some way here in this meeting. Yesterday Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on NBC that he just doesn't think Donald Trump should be sitting down with Putin alone.
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MARK WARNER: In Putin, you've got a trained KGB agent who does his homework. My fear is that Putin could come in with maps of Ukraine or maps of Syria and try to cut some deal and frankly take advantage of this president.
GREENE: And, Lucian, you cover Putin a lot in Moscow. Can you talk about what exactly people like Warner might be worried about here?
KIM: Yeah, sure. I mean, Putin shows his training as a former KGB officer. He can be very congenial, personable. He really studies his interlocutors before he goes into any meetings. He knows their likes and dislikes, even their family background. And just remember how George W. Bush said he was able to look into Putin's soul...
KIM: ...After their first meeting.
GREENE: I remember that.
KIM: Although they actually had ended up having a very good personal relationship despite poor relations between the U.S. and Russia. So the current concern here is that Putin will know exactly what buttons to push with Trump, who is so public about what he thinks, and then try to manipulate him. Putin really thrives from personal relations with world leaders from China, the Middle East, also individual European countries because he really believes that international affairs can be much better regulated among leaders in back rooms than by treaties and allies.
GREENE: All right, well, I mean, backroom is one way to put this one-on-one meeting that's going to be happening because no one else is going to be there. And it's hard to know what we'll know coming out of it. Let me ask you both about what exactly these two leaders are looking for and what would look like a success. Ayesha, what is - what does President Trump - especially because, you know, there's no fixed agenda - what does he want out of this?
RASCOE: So the White House has said basically that they view just holding the meeting as a win. But Trump has made clear he wants the U.S. to be on better terms with Russia. He feels like it benefits the U.S. to not have these tensions with Russia. And he feels that right now things haven't gone as well with Russia, and he's blaming the U.S. for that. On Twitter this morning, he has complained that he thinks that whatever he gets out of this meeting, that the media will basically think it's not enough. That's what he tweeted, that it will never be enough, whatever he gets out of the meeting.
GREENE: So that's a way of setting expectations and maybe getting onto his fake news narrative before the meeting even takes place I guess.
GREENE: Lucian, what about Vladimir Putin? What is he looking for here?
KIM: Well, I think Putin is looking for a sign that he's no longer in the doghouse. And that's why this meeting is so important to him. Remember; Russia was very isolated after the annexation of Crimea. That's when all the sanctions started. The contacts that President Obama had built up were frozen. And then in addition to that, you had the U.S. accusing Russia of election interference in 2016. And so relations actually got worse under President Trump. So this summit for the Russian side is about symbolism, that Crimea, election interfering - that's all water under the bridge. And it's very important for the Russian side to avoid any new sanctions and just get the talks - two sides talking again.
GREENE: I'm just struck by what's happened in the buildup to this meeting. I mean, you had President Trump criticizing NATO allies. You had him questioning the performance of British Prime Minister Theresa May. I mean, Putin has to like what Trump has been saying in the days, you know, approaching this. I mean, what do Russians think about this relationship? Do they see these two leaders as actually closer than one might have thought?
KIM: Well, you're completely right. I mean, all this talk about European allies being America's foes is really music to the Kremlin's ears. Russia, since the formation of NATO after World War II, has been trying to split the U.S. away from Europe. And so I think they're hearing very clearly in the Kremlin that President Putin regards the EU as a foe and wants to call Putin a friend. America First is very much in line with Putin's own view of the world, which can be summarized as Russia first.
GREENE: All right, Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow, and Ayesha Rascoe covers the White House. They are both in Helsinki. Thank you both. We appreciate it.
KIM: Thank you.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right, in Iraq now we are seeing the most widespread protests since 2003. These protests are sweeping through the south of the country right now.
KING: Yeah. Demonstrators have been gathering for a week. They're demanding jobs and better services. And in response to these protests, the Iraqi government has sent army and counterterror troops into the south.
GREENE: All right, let's turn to NPR's Jane Arraf, who has been monitoring these protests. She joins us from Amman, Jordan. Hi there, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So what is behind these protests, and why are they happening right now?
ARRAF: Well, the first thing is it's incredibly hot. This morning in Basra it's 112 degrees, and that's a relatively nice day. So this is...
GREENE: That's a nice day? (Laughter) So it can be even hotter.
ARRAF: That's a nice day. It's so much worse. So it's 15 years after the U.S. invaded Iraq. And after 15 years of being promised electricity and services and better lives, they don't have - even have clean water. You turn on the taps, and this salty water comes out. The electricity gets cut off every couple of hours. So people are fed up. Let's listen to a bit of one of those protests.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: So that's one of the protesters outside a government office saying that they have no services. And demonstrators were actually calling for the fall of the Iraqi government. Now, that's something you kind of hear a lot. But these protests are different because they have grievances that have gone on for years. And a lot of these are young men. And they're pointing out they're near the oil fields, near borders, near ports, and none of them have jobs. And that's the main reason for this.
GREENE: Well, how important is the geography here? Because Basra if I'm correct is - I mean, it's the second-biggest city in Iraq. I mean, the oil industry is very present there. And it's also really close to Iran, right? Are these all factors in what we're seeing here?
ARRAF: They absolutely are. And that's the complicated and really interesting thing. You can actually stand on the waterfront in Basra and see Iran right across the bridge. So one of the protesters was saying that they don't want any political parties in Basra. They don't want any of those politicians there, and particularly the Iranian parties. They say they have to go back to Iran.
Now, we have to remember that Iran has gained influence in Iraq because when ISIS came, Iran fielded militias to come and fight ISIS. So they're pretty entrenched. But on that electricity thing, Iraq actually buys electricity from Iran. And Iran has cut it off recently due to a budget dispute. Now, an electricity official in Iraq says it's due to U.S. sanctions that prevent them from paying Iran. Not entirely sure whether that's clear, but there's a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment and lot of anti-foreign sentiment.
GREENE: It's so interesting how we see Iran's growing influence play out so many different ways in that region. How is the government responding to these protests so far, Jane?
ARRAF: Well, they've sent in those troops. There have been a few people killed, actually, and dozens wounded when security forces either fired in the air and the bullets came down or they actually opened fire on protesters they say were firing at them in some cities. Prime Minister Abadi has promised money, but, you know, that hasn't done anything for the last few years. And the country is politically in chaos. There were elections in May. There's still no new government and no word when that's going to be or when the protests will stop.
GREENE: OK, talking about the unrest and the protests we're seeing in southern Iraq, that's NPR's Jane Arraf. Jane, thanks a lot.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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