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Putin talks Trump ahead of first official meeting since Helsinki

Putin and Trump in Helsinki last year. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In a matter of hours, President Trump will sit down with Russia's Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan at the G-20 summit.

Between the lines: Trump, who has said he hopes to improve relations with Russia now that the Mueller investigation is over, told reporters before setting off that what he says to Putin is "none of your business." The ghost of their disastrous press conference last year in Helsinki still lingers.

  • Putin recently lamented that there are institutional "restraints" keeping Trump from normalizing ties.
  • Asked about Trump in a lengthy interview, published on Thursday, with the FT's Lionel Barber and Henry Foy, Putin expressed both approval and bewilderment.

From the interview...

Putin describes Trump as a “talented person” who “saw changes in American society and took advantage.”

  • While globalization pulled millions out of Chinese out of poverty, Putin says, the American middle class “hardly benefited," and shares Trump's view that the whole system has been unfair to the U.S.
  • “I will not say if what he is doing is right or wrong. I would like to understand his motives… maybe this could explain his unusual behavior.”
  • Putin refers to Russian interference in the 2016 election as “mythical,” and echoes Trump's claim that it’s used to discount his victory.

On immigration, Putin says Trump’s approach “could be going too far,” but he “had to do something.” He adds that, by contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made a “cardinal mistake" by allowing in 1 million Syrian refugees.

  • Putin claims, erroneously, that “the liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done,” and “migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected.”
  • He transitions from migration to “traditional values,” insisting “the interests of the core population" should be protected above all else.
  • Putin concludes that “the liberal idea has become obsolete” and “outlived its purpose.”

Asked whether he’s putting “too many eggs” into the China basket, Putin says: “we have enough eggs, but there are not that many baskets where these eggs can be placed.”

  • He notes that Russia and China “have many coinciding interests,” and downplays concerns about China’s growing military, pointing to the massive defense spending gap between Washington and Beijing.

On Syria, Putin says Russia has had a “positive return," including “very good, business-like” relations with all the key players, including Iran and Turkey.

  • His view on backing Assad: “When you do not know what happens tomorrow, why shoot from the hip today?”

On Venezuela, he denies Russia is playing a key role, but dismisses opposition leader Juan Guaidó's claim to the presidency, which rests on the idea that Russian ally Nicolás Maduro was not legitimately elected.

  • “He may be just wonderful, and his plans are good. But is it enough that he entered a square and proclaimed himself president?”

What to watch: Putin faces constitutional term limits in 2024. He says he's been thinking about his succession plan "since 2000," when he took power.

  • He says the next Russian president will be chosen in a national election, though he adds: "Of course, the leader always supports someone."

Read the FT's full transcript.