Russians have largely greeted Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House with high hopes for a new era of improved relations with the United States. And judging by this week’s reaction, the first telephone call between Presidents Trump and Putin has done nothing to diminish those expectations.
In his influential weekly news program Vesti Nedeli, anchor Dmitry Kiselev praised the 45-minute conversation as the “most awaited phone call on Earth.”
“Donald Trump is fulfilling his election promises and getting rid of Obama’s pathetic legacy,” Kiselev said during the broadcast.
Kremlin officials have been more circumspect, if only slightly.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the conversation as “constructive” with both men showing a desire to resolve “complex issues through dialogue.”
Peskov said such cooperation was not possible under the Obama administration, with whom the Kremlin sparred bitterly over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, military support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and allegations of interference in the U.S. presidential election, among other issues.
Indeed, following the phone call, statements from both the Kremlin and White House stressed a desire to find common ground.
The Kremlin said the leaders expressed an interest in closer cooperation in fighting Islamic State terrorists, as well as dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran nuclear deal, and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. There was no indication that the presidents discussed the charges that Russia tried to interfere with the U.S. election.
Nor do the two appear to have discussed Western sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, although the tone of the call fed into speculation that they could soon be eased.
Key European allies – in line with the former Obama administration – have proposed partially lifting the sanctions only if Moscow fulfills its obligations under the Minsk Peace Accords aimed at ending the fighting in east Ukraine between Kyiv government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
President Trump has suggested he could lift sanctions in exchange for a reduction in Russia’s nuclear arsenal or a commitment to fight the Islamic State.
In his press call Monday, Kremlin spokesman Peskov insisted sanctions were not raised during the Trump-Putin call.
A shift in tone
But many observers pointed hopefully to a Kremlin statement that the two leaders expressed a desire improve “economic cooperation.”
“To fully develop economic ties, it’s necessary to create the right climate and legal conditions,” said Russian lawmaker Dmitri Novikov in comments reported by the Interfax news agency. “That requires canceling sanctions.”
Kremlin allies also contrasted the apparently warm rapport between Trump and Putin to the Russian president’s frosty relationships with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francoise Hollande.
Indeed, some argued that the budding Trump-Putin friendship had the potential to shake traditional U.S. allies to the core.
“Kyiv, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw, Oslo, Stockholm, NATO – they’re all horrified by the results of the Putin-Trump call,” crowed Alexey Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker and former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs committee in a post to Twitter.
Yet hovering over any budding detente are the accusations the Kremlin meddled in the U.S. election with the aim of helping Trump win the White House.
So, too, are unsubstantiated claims the Kremlin possesses compromising sexual material on Trump from a visit to Moscow in 2013.
A U.S. investigation also is continuing into whether there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign team and Russian officials during the election campaign.
Moscow has repeatedly denied the hacking charges, and angrily dismissed related allegations as attempts to sabotage a new era in U.S.-Russian relations.
Still, the hacking scandal gained new intrigue with recent Russian news reports that two intelligence officers from the FSB’s cybersecurity unit were among six Russian nationals arrested and charged with treason.
According to sources quoted by the Interfax news agency, those arrested are suspected of providing information to the CIA – raising questions of its possible connections to the U.S. investigation into Russian hacking.
Kremlin officials have yet to comment.
Who is playing whom?
Warranted or not, the hacking scandal has made the Trump team sensitive to charges it is beholden to Moscow.
Some Russia analysts point to the White House’s decision to release photos of Trump on the phone with Putin surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence and other advisors as a sign of the administration’s concerns over the optics of Russian rapprochement.
But Russian political analyst Feodor Krashenninkov argues the “Trump as Putin’s puppet” theory is overblown.
In an interview with VOA, Krashenninkov noted that Trump’s actions are hemmed in by Republican lawmakers who favor a hardline approach to Russia.
“Putin – by contrast – can give away anything,” says Krashenninkov, who noted – in a twist – that it is Putin who would be more likely to embrace the title of Trump’s bestseller, The Art of the Deal.
Krashenninkov argued that Trump, in his introductory conversation with the Russian leader, borrowed from another book of American tycoon lore: Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Wherever U.S.-Russian relations head next, some in Moscow were reveling in the domestic controversy arising during Trump’s first week in office – including mass protests against the administration’s decision to temporarily ban admission to the United States of all refugees and most citizens of seven Middle Eastern countries.
Maxim Shevchenko, a pro-Kremlin journalist, urged his government to enjoy – if not stoke – the chaos.
“Trump is a symbol of the deep, insurmountable and not easily defined confrontation of the societal, political, and economic split in America… therefore, greetings Trump!’ Shevchenko wrote in a post to his Facebook account.
“The more chaos, anger, and confrontation they have the better.”