ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to send his congratulations to President-elect Donald Trump. Trump has said he wants to work more closely with Russia. And Putin says he’s hoping Russia’s relations with the United States will now improve. That could mean an easing of U.S. sanctions. NPR’s Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a gilded Kremlin hall, President Putin accepted the credentials of new ambassadors to Moscow and used the occasion to talk about his hopes to turn a corner with the U.S.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KELEMEN: We are aware that this will be a difficult path, Putin says, adding it’s not Russia’s fault that relations are in such a poor state. Russian lawmakers who cheered for Trump are now raising hopes that he’ll ease up on sanctions and recognize that Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula is now part of Russia. Trump did suggest he would consider that. Russia was often front and center in this year’s foreign policy debate. And Hillary Clinton accused Putin himself of leading cyberattacks in the U.S. and trying to influence American voters.
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HILLARY CLINTON: He’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
DONALD TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…
TRUMP: You’re the puppet.
CLINTON: It’s pretty clear…
KELEMEN: And throughout the campaign, Trump repeated this line.
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TRUMP: I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good.
KELEMEN: Russian officials now say they did have contacts with the Trump campaign and will continue to keep channels open. A Russia watcher here in Washington, Matthew Rojansky, says Trump shouldn’t rush into talks with Putin just yet, though. Rojansky runs the Kennan Institute, named for the diplomat George Kennan, who came up with the U.S. policy of containment during the Cold War. And Rojansky thinks a similar long-term strategy is needed now.
MATTHEW ROJANKSY: President Trump cannot simply come in and say by dint of my greater competence as a negotiator, I’m going to get more than Obama got, more than Hillary would have gotten ’cause it’s not going to work. That’s not what was missing. The problem was a really deep clash of U.S.-Russian interests.
KELEMEN: And there will likely be divisions within a Trump administration over Russia. Even his running mate, Mike Pence, has called Putin a small and bullying leader. And as Rojanksy points out, there’s a lot of anti-Russian sentiment in the Republican Party. As for Putin, he says things are going well for Russia for now.
ROJANSKY: I think they’re going to play their cards carefully. I don’t think they’re looking to upset the apple cart, force NATO to circle its wagons even more, you know, push Europe and, frankly, the vast bulk of the U.S. political establishment, which is very hostile towards the Kremlin, even more in that direction.
KELEMEN: Many in Congress don’t want to see sanctions eased as long as Russia continues to stir up trouble in Ukraine and back a brutal regime in Syria. So Trump could face some domestic pressure, according to Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank that hosted Trump’s foreign policy speech during the campaign.
PAUL SAUNDERS: Why give away U.S. leverage without getting something in return for that?
KELEMEN: While Saunders says it doesn’t make sense to just let the sanctions expire, he does advocate negotiations over Ukraine, Syria and other disputes. He says there are only two ways to get what you want in foreign policy – force governments to comply or talk.
SAUNDERS: Russia is a nuclear weapon state with thousands of nuclear weapons, so the ability of the United States to force Russia to do something that Russia is not prepared to do is limited.
KELEMEN: Saunders argues that the bigger strategic challenge for the U.S. down the road is China. A better relationship with Moscow might help the U.S. focus on that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.