NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump says the U.S.'s relationship with Russia has never been worse. He sent that message on Twitter this morning ahead of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That meeting is set to begin in about an hour in Helsinki. And NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is there now. Good morning, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right, so you've been rolling around Helsinki for a couple of days now. What's the atmosphere there like? What are people saying?
KIM: Well, there actually was a small protest yesterday not so much against the summit itself as much as what Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin represent, what they stand for. But actually, what's most impressive about Helsinki is this atmosphere of calm. Finland's main newspaper has taken out ads, billboards reminding Putin and Trump about the need for press freedom. Last night, I saw a projection actually on the presidential palace calling for human rights to be observed in Chechnya.
It's important to remember that Finns are really in a delicate position. They have an 800-mile border with Russia. And so they're deeply ambivalent about Russia but also about NATO. Although they're not ambivalent about belonging to the West. They definitely think they belong there.
KING: But so far, they are keeping things calm and to the point. You're normally based in Russia. What are people in Russia expecting from this summit?
KIM: Well, expectations are low because relations are really at such a low point right now. Putin's spokesman said today in an interview that the summit itself is the main thing, the main result, a small step in the right direction. This is all about optics and symbolism. You've got to remember that Russia was very isolated after annexing Crimea in 2014. That's when the rolling sanctions began and very close contacts that President Obama had actually built up were frozen.
Then Trump got elected. The accusations of election interference began. So actually, under Trump things got even worse. This will be sold as a big win in Moscow. Putin is out of the doghouse, and now he's talking one-on-one with the president of the United States.
KING: All right, so Putin at least gets his sit-down. President Trump has acknowledged that relations between the U.S. and Russia are not good. He said in part on Twitter this morning it's because of what he called the rigged witch hunt. Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday for interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign. This is a big news story in the U.S. President Trump has said he will ask Putin about all of this. If he does, any idea what Putin's going to say?
KIM: Well, this whole story about the indictments, it's not really big news in Russia although state media have been covering it. And it really fits into their narrative that there's sort of a global anti-Russian conspiracy. In Russia, the intricate detail that the indictments went into are - that detail is not being pored over today. And the Foreign Ministry said that this is just an attempt by Trump's political opponents to spoil the atmosphere before the summit.
So Putin - as far - what Putin is actually going to say, I mean, he's likely to repeat what he's always said - that he denies any government involvement in this, that this is fake news and part of a U.S. domestic fight. And on that point Trump has shown that he actually agrees with Putin.
KING: I mean, despite the indictments there's still a long list of issues here, right? There's nuclear arms control. There's Russia's role in Syria. There is Crimea. What are the issues, quickly, that the Russian side wants to bring up during this summit?
KIM: Well, Noel, you just named them all.
KIM: I mean, despite the sometimes martial rhetoric that Putin uses which is often for domestic consumption, the Kremlin of course is aware of the danger posed by its nuclear arsenals. So, yes, arms control is one. Russia wants to use the leverage it's gained in Syria by entering that conflict to act as a power broker since Trump has said he would like to draw down U.S. operations there. And Putin will probably try to reinforce Trump's idea that Crimea is actually Russian because most people there speak Russian, which is a little like saying Austria should belong to Germany because people in Austria speak German.
KING: Not an uncontroversial statement. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is in Helsinki this morning. Thanks, Lucian.
KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.