By Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump described Russia's Vladimir Putin on Thursday as a "competitor" rather than an "enemy" and said he expected they would get along well when they hold their first summit next week.
Speaking before leaving Brussels where he met NATO leaders, Trump repeated an earlier remark that his meeting with Putin might be the easiest part of a trip that included the summit of the Western military alliance and will also take him to Britain.
"I think we'll get along well. But ultimately he's a competitor. He's representing Russia. I'm representing the United States. So in a sense we're competitors, not a question of friend or enemy. He's not my enemy," Trump said.
"Hopefully some day, maybe he'll be a friend. It could happen but I don't know him very well."
Trump avoided criticising Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea or calling Putin a threat when asked, saying: "I don't want him to be, and that's I guess why we have NATO."
Trump's comparatively warm words about Putin were particularly noteworthy given the harsh criticism he leveled at allies during the NATO summit, when he repeatedly berated European countries for spending too little on defence.
He reserved his strongest criticism for Germany, with what one senior diplomat from one of Washington's NATO allies described as a "cold-blooded" assault.
While he criticised plans for a big new Russian pipeline to Germany, provoking a rebuke from Moscow, his ire was directed at Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I don't like the pipeline," Trump said, bemoaning what he said were billions of dollars Russia would reap from the project. "But maybe we will get along with the group that we are protecting against, I think that is a real possibility. As you know I am meeting with Putin," he added.
The U.S. president is set to hold a face-to-face meeting with Putin on Monday in Helsinki, which NATO diplomats say will be the true test of Trump's commitment to the Western alliance.
Three senior U.S. officials told Reuters that no one in the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, knows what Trump might say in Helsinki.
Some European officials say privately that they worry Trump might express a desire to curb U.S. military exercises in Europe or reduce troops, just as he unexpectedly called off exercises in Korea after meeting North Korea's Kim Jong Un last month.
Trump played down expectations for the Putin talks, saying he was not looking for firm results but would raise disagreements over Syria, Ukraine and allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. politics.
"We'll see what happens, just a loose meeting, it's not going to be (a) big schedule, I don't think it should take a very long period of time, and we will see where it leads."
Answering a question about what other issues would be on the table, he opened the door for the two leaders to discuss U.S. exercises in the Baltics and arms control issues.
"We go into that meeting not looking for so much. We want to find out about Syria," Trump said.
NATO leaders had voiced joint concerns over Russia's actions, saying in a summit communique on Wednesday that Moscow threatened stability and that they "stand in solidarity" with British assessment that Russia was to blame for a nerve agent attack in the British city of Salisbury.
Despite apprehension over the Putin-Trump meeting, NATO leaders reiterated that maintaining dialogue with Moscow was important to resolving differences.
Some NATO diplomats shrugged off Trump's tough words as a frank discussion between allies, saying the push for countries to spend more on defence showed his commitment to the alliance.
"If he gets along with Russia - ultimately it's good for strategic stability," one diplomat said.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Jeff Mason, and Robin Emmott; Additional reporting by John Walcott in Washington and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Editing by Peter Graff)