U.S. sanctions against Russia will be “under consideration” when President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold their first official conversation on Saturday, according to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Asked whether sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for Russian interference in the U.S. election and intervention in the Ukraine would be on the table in a scheduled call between the two, Conway said on Fox that “all that is under consideration … And if another nation that has considerable resources wishes to join together with the United States of America to try to defeat and eradicate radical Islamic terrorism, then we’re listening.”
The call will mark the first test of whether the mutual affinity between Trump and Putin will also open a new course for U.S.-Russia relations that were deeply strained under President Barack Obama.
The planned phone conversation, announced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday, comes after months of speculation over the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election – starting with Trump’s frequent expressions of admiration for Putin and culminating in the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the campaign on Trump’s behalf.
Along the way, Trump has consistently argued that Russia can be a strong ally rather than a strategic adversary. Critics of Trump’s views point to Moscow’s clashes with the West, from its interventions in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and its alleged use of hackers, trolls and propaganda machines to its meddling in European and U.S. election campaigns.
Putin has cautiously expressed optimism that Trump can improve the relationship. Russia is also looking for the United States to lift sanctions and push for a reduction of NATO’s military presence near Russia’s borders.
Any move to lift the sanctions would be controversial. Removal of those imposed for what the U.S. intelligence community has said was interference in the electoral campaign –through hacking of Democratic websites and spreading of “false news” stories – could be interpreted as compensation from Trump.
Separate sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies to punish Russia for military aid to Ukrainian separatists and Russia’s annexation of Crimea would likely bring a sharp reaction from the allies.
Conway’s comments did not indicate that “consideration” of sanctions has been translated into any action within the Trump administration, where a number of senior officials have expressed concern about unilateral removal of the measures.
Asked on “Fox and Friends” whether Russia would have to “change its behavior” in Ukraine and in Syria, where Russian warplanes have aided the Syrian government in bombing rebels and civilians, before sanctions are lifted, Conway said: “You know what the president has said, it’s America first, and that includes in his foreign policy and his national security moves. So, yes, he will call out to other nations when he believes it’s not in American interest and in the interest of humanity.”
On a grander scale, Moscow hopes the new administration will relax what it sees as a policy of containment since the fall of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, allowing the Kremlin to have a greater influence in world affairs and, in Russia’s view, to feel more secure at home.
There is reason to expect Trump to announce shake-ups in the U.S. approach to Russia. Saturday’s call will cap off a week in which he has begun sweeping foreign policy changes in line with the “America first” approach to global affairs that he promised during the campaign.
But Moscow has consistently cautioned about “excessive optimism” over what Trump’s presidency will mean for Russia, and Peskov stayed on script Friday. “One can hardly expect substantive contacts on the entire range of affairs from this call,” he told reporters. “Let us wait and see; let us be patient.”
Peskov said he did not know whether Trump and Putin would discuss a summit. The Russian spokesman also declined to speculate on media reports that Trump had prepared a directive to lift anti-Russian sanctions.
In his last weeks in office, Obama hit Russia with sanctions in response to the hacking allegations, and he extended the sanctions imposed after Moscow annexed Crimea and began waging a proxy war in Ukraine in 2014.
Trump has identified areas of shared U.S.-Russia interests, including counterterrorism in general and rolling back the Islamic State in particular, as well as countering nuclear weapons proliferation.
Trump has suggested that Washington can work with Moscow on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and that he might be ready to negotiate down NATO’s strong defensive posture on Russia’s western border. He has expressed skepticism about sanctions unless applied to Iran or North Korea.
U.S. lawmakers and others have raised alarms about Trump’s approach to Putin.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the matter in a statement Friday. “President Donald Trump’s call with Vladimir Putin is scheduled to take place amid widespread speculation that the White House is considering lifting sanctions against Russia,” McCain said. “For the sake of America’s national security and that of our allies, I hope President Trump will put an end to this speculation and reject such a reckless course. If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law. ”
Moscow’s establishment has welcomed Trump as a pragmatist who will not try to enforce American values on the rest of the world. In a nationally televised news conference earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov railed against the “messianism” and export by the West of “post-Christian values” that embrace “permissiveness,” a nod toward the conservative ethos that has found increasing support in the Kremlin.
“If we hear that in the foreign policy of Donald Trump the main thing will be the fight against terrorism, then we, of course, can only welcome that, since that is exactly the thing that has been lacking with our American partners,” Lavrov said.
The Obama administration frequently characterized Russia as an unreliable partner at best and raised cautions about Trump’s willingness to work with Putin amid growing concerns about the nature of Trump’s ties to Moscow.
Trump has denied any business involvement in Russia, a claim that is impossible to verify because he has refused to release his tax returns. But a look at Trump’s record since the 1980s shows that he and his family have launched several efforts to do business in Russia. During the election, a Russian deputy foreign minister was quoted saying his government had been in contact with Trump’s campaign, and afterward, reports emerged that Russian intelligence had compromised the future president.
Putin has dismissed the reports as a fabrication to “undermine the legitimacy” of Trump’s presidency.
Trump has also vehemently denied the allegations and has sought to portray his upbeat words about Putin as a positive.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said before his inauguration. “Now, I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t.”
That last line may prove prophetic. Trump has also called for the expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and his nominees to head the State Department, the Department of Defense and the CIA all spoke of Russia in adversarial terms during their confirmation hearings.
Putin has said Moscow did not intend to pursue an arms race “that we can’t afford” with the United States. But he also has noted that Russia is modernizing its own nuclear strike capability, which he said would enable it to overpower any missile defenses the United States is developing. Russia, he said, “will be stronger than any aggressor.”
Trump also plans to speak by phone Saturday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday.
Trump’s conversation with Merkel could touch on his harsh campaign trail critiques of her policies to allow Syrian refugees to settle in Germany. Trump has called that policy “a very tragic mistake” and “a catastrophe.”
Trump is working to build personal relationships with the leaders of traditional U.S. allies. He is meeting Friday at the White House with British Prime Minister Theresa May, his first bilateral session, and is planning to soon meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Karen Deyoung, David Filipov