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Putin-Trump honeymoon over

Fiona Clark Moscow
February 10, 2017

Fiona Clark wonders if recent statements by US President Donald Trump could mean that US-Russian relations may not be as rosy as many Russians would have hoped.

USA Protest gegen Trump & Putin in Washington
Image: DW/W. Esipow

Russians had their hearts set on Donald Trump. He was the hope for a better future, the man who would reset relations between the US and Russia - a task they believe Hillary Clinton could never achieve. But less than three weeks into the Trump era, the Kremlin may be wishing it had kept its fingers out of the pie.

Already the Russian media has gone from "All hail President Trump" to asking whether the incumbent has fallen prey to the neocons within the Republican Party. Yes, he's still defended and praised over the way he deflected criticism of President Vladimir Putin when the latter was accused of being a killer by Fox news presenter Bill O'Reilly, and he's reiterated his respect for the Russian leader. But his actions in these first few weeks speak loudly that little has really changed in the White House when it comes to policy.

Trump's travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries should have sounded an alarm bell or two in the Kremlin. The countries named - Iran, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya - were predictably in line with the Obama administration. Conspicuously absent were two countries - Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both of whom have produced their fair share of terrorists including the mastermind and a number of the hijackers who were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While speculation abounded that the omissions were perhaps due to Trump's financial ties with those countries, it's also in line with long-held US alliances in the region.

Not in sync

Donald Trump und Wladimir Putin
The love-in between Trump and Putin may be over before it's even started properlyImage: picture alliance/A. Lohr-Jones/A. Astafyev/CNP POOL/Sputnik/dpa

Hot on the heels of that is the White House putting Iran "on notice" and imposing sanctions against 22 Iranian companies after Tehran conducted a banned missile test. Trump went on to label Iran "the number one terrorist state," which he said was "sending money all over the place and weapons" to sponsor "Islamic State"-led terrorism. It's an allegation that can equally be made against the Saudis.

The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quite diplomatic in his response to the US move on Iran, stating: "It's no secret for anyone that Moscow and Washington hold diametrically opposed views on many international and regional policy issues." But he added that it "should not be an obstacle when it comes to forging normal communication and pragmatic, mutually beneficial relations between Russia and the US."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wasn't quite so forgiving, stating that Trumps statements were incorrect.

"Iran has never been complicit in any links to IS or the Nusra Front whatsoever," Lavrov said. "Moreover, Iran contributes to combating IS. We have long advocated the idea of creating a unified anti-terrorist front. I am convinced that Iran must be part of our common effort if we evaluate potential contributors to such an alliance objectively."

That might not be so palatable for the White House.

Not music to the Kremlin's ears

But what certainly won't be palatable in the Kremlin is Trump's apparent backpedaling on easing sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea. There were rumors of an executive order being drafted to roll back the sanctions and take the pressure off Russia, but it seems to have evaporated, and the new US leader is now saying it's too early to make a decision on such matters. Meanwhile, Ukraine's former prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, claims Trump told her the sanctions were staying put. That's certainly not the news the Kremlin wants to hear.

Trump is still, however, saying one word Russia does like to hear: respect- telling Fox News that he does "respect" Putin.

The Kremlin has long said the ailing relations between the two countries over the past few years were due to a lack of respect. But if nothing actually changes on the ground, how long can mutual respect keep relations on an even keel? In the end, the Middle East is an area where the two sides are vying for influence, and even a united front to battle IS may not be enough to keep them on friendly terms.

Trump may well have been right when he said respect "doesn't mean I'm going to get along" with Putin. There's no doubt that Trump's unpredictability will be weighing heavily on the Kremlin leadership's mind, and they may well be thinking they'd have been better off if they'd backed, as the saying goes, the devil they knew.