HONOLULU — Moscow is hoping Donald Trump will reconsider the sanctions the U.S. is levying in response to its finding of election hacking, a wait-and-see strategy bolstered by the American president-elect’s own approving words for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin has essentially put relations with the U.S. on hold until Trump replaces President Barack Obama on Jan. 20. Though his foreign minister encouraged him to slap back at Washington for the sanctions imposed by Obama, Putin decided that Russia wouldn’t immediately retaliate.
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” Trump wrote Friday on Twitter. “I always knew he was very smart!”
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
Praise for a longtime adversary at odds with a sitting American president is remarkable for a president-elect — and the latest signal that U.S.-Russia relations, among other policies, could be getting a makeover from Trump.
Whether he steers the U.S. toward or away from Russia is shaping up as the first major test of his foreign policy disposition and his willingness to buck fellow Republicans, who for years have argued Obama wasn’t being tough enough on Russia.
In response to the election hacking he blames on Russia, Obama ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. Brushing off Obama, Putin said Russia would plan steps to restore U.S. ties “based on the policies that will be carried out by the administration of President D. Trump.” Not only would Russia not kick Americans out, Putin said, he was inviting the kids of all U.S. diplomats to the Kremlin’s New Year’s and Christmas parties.
“At this point, they’re trolling Obama,” said Olga Oliker, who directs the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Obama administration said it had seen Putin’s remarks but had nothing more to say.
Russia denies the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that in an attempt to help Trump win the presidency, Moscow orchestrated cyber breaches in which tens of thousands of Democrats’ emails were stolen and later made public. Trump, too, has refused to accept that conclusion and insisted the country should just “move on,” though he has agreed to meet next week with intelligence leaders to learn more.
Notably, after the U.S. on Thursday issued a report it said exposed Russia’s cyber tactics, Putin’s aides didn’t offer any specific rebuttal. The report included detailed technical information like IP addresses and samples of malware code the U.S. said Russia uses.
One utility company, Burlington Electric Department in Vermont, reported Friday that it had detected the malware on a company laptop that was not connected to its grid systems. Burlington said, “We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.”
There’s little certainty about how Trump will actually act on Russia as president. Though he’s praised Putin as a strong leader and said it would be ideal for the two countries to stop fighting, he also suggested this month the U.S. might mount a new nuclear arms race, triggering fresh anxieties about a return to Cold War-style tensions.
Ambassador Michael McFaul, Obama’s former envoy to Russia, said while Trump has defined his top objective as “getting along with the Kremlin,” Putin has higher goals, including the lifting of economic sanctions and, ideally, U.S. recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Obviously, Putin’s not responding because he’s waiting for Jan. 20,” McFaul said in an interview. “He’s got these much more important objectives to him than getting into a tit-for-tat response with the outgoing administration.”
Trump’s warm outreach to Putin, combined with picks for secretary of state and national security adviser who are seen as friendly to Russia, have left hawkish Republicans with a particularly unpleasant choice: look hypocritical for backtracking on their own tough talk, or risk a public rift with their party’s new president.
In the House, many Republicans who have long called for tougher sanctions have been silent or vague about Obama’s penalties and Trump’s positions. But a handful of GOP senators have shown they have no intentions of letting up pressure on the Kremlin.
“We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia,” Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, scheduled a hearing next week on “foreign cyber threats” in an attempt to further spotlight Russia’s actions.
Even if Trump opts to pull back Obama’s sanctions and overlook hacking allegations, he may find rapprochement with Russia isn’t that simple. The past two presidents both tried to reach out to Russia early in their terms but left office with relations in no better shape.
Though Trump has suggested the U.S. and Russia should align strategies in Syria by focusing on their mutual enemy, the Islamic State group, Russia’s military campaign has almost exclusively targeted American-backed Syrian rebels, the U.S. has said. Nor is it clear whether Trump and Putin share a common approach to Europe’s security issues.
And if Trump follows through on his vow to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, he won’t find a receptive audience in Moscow. Putin’s government brokered the deal with the U.S., Iran and other world powers and has no intention of slapping sanctions back on Iran.