MOSCOW/BERLIN (REUTERS) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are expected to speak by telephone this Saturday (Jan 28), the Kremlin said, a first step towards what Mr Trump has billed as a normalisation of relations after three years of tensions sparked by the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr Trump will also have a telephone conversation on the same day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and that call is expected to focus on Russia, a source familiar with the matter said.
Mr Putin plans to use the telephone call to congratulate Mr Trump on taking office and to exchange views on the current state of bilateral ties, the Kremlin said.
Asked if they would discuss Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking to reporters on a conference call, said it was unlikely they would have substantive discussions on the entire range of issues facing their countries, as it was their first contact since Mr Trump’s inauguration.
Asked about media reports that Mr Trump was preparing to lift or soften sanctions imposed on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, Mr Peskov said: “I know nothing about that.”
Mr Trump has said in the past that, as part of the rapprochement he is seeking with Russia, he is prepared to review the sanctions that Washington imposed on Russia in relation for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
That move is likely to face resistance from both influential figures in Washington and foreign leaders – Dr Merkel among them – who argue sanctions should only be eased if Moscow complies with the West’s conditions on Ukraine.
Mr Trump is already under intense scrutiny at home from critics who say he was elected with help from Russian intelligence – an allegation he denies – and that he is too ready to cut deals with a country that many of his own officials say is a threat to US security.
Mr Trump and Mr Putin last spoke in November, when Mr Putin rang Mr Trump to congratulate him on winning the presidential election.
If Mr Putin and Mr Trump can establish a rapport, it could pave the way for deals on Ukraine and Syria, two sources of friction during the administration of Barack Obama.
Mr Trump and Mr Putin have never met and it was unclear how their very different personalities would gel. Mr Trump is a flamboyant real estate deal-maker who often acts on gut instinct, while Mr Putin is a former Soviet spy who calculates each step methodically.
Both have spoken about ending the enmity that has dragged US-Russia relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with people? Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along, as an example, with Russia? I am all for it,” Mr Trump told a news conference in July last year.
Mr Putin, at a news conference in December, said he would reciprocate. “Mr Trump... said he believes it’s right to normalise Russian-American ties and said it definitely won’t be any worse, because it couldn’t be worse. I agree with him. Together we’ll think about how to improve things.”
For the Russian leader, there is much to gain. Mr Putin is expected to run for re-election next year, but is hampered by a sluggish economy. A softening or removal of sanctions would allow Western investment and credit to flow in, lifting growth and strengthening Mr Putin’s election prospects.
For Mr Trump, a rapprochement with Russia carries political risks. Powerful Congressional figures say they will block any move to lift Ukraine-related sanctions. Mr Trump is also vulnerable to allegations of being too cosy with Moscow.
US intelligence agencies published a report this month saying Russia had mounted a campaign, including through hacking of Democratic Party emails, to influence the presidential election in Mr Trump’s favour. Both Mr Trump and the Kremlin have denied that happened.