MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will speak by telephone on Saturday, the Kremlin said, a first step towards what Trumphas billed as a normalization of relations after three years of tensions sparked by the conflict in Ukraine.
Trump will also have a telephone conversation the same day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and that call is expected to focus on Russia, a source in Berlin familiar with the matter said. Merkel’s spokeswoman declined to comment.
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met in Berlin on Friday, underscoring a need for European unity in the face of growing internal and external threats, including concerns about a move toward protectionism by the United States.
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“Let’s say it honestly, there is the challenge posed by the new U.S. administration, regarding trade rules and what our position will be on managing conflicts in the world,” Hollande, who will leave office after an April-May election, told reporters.
Trump has said in the past that, as part of the rapprochement he is seeking with Russia, he is prepared to review sanctions Washington imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
That move is likely to face resistance from both influential figures in Washington and foreign leaders — Merkel among them — who argue sanctions should only be eased if Moscow complies with the West’s conditions on Ukraine.
Trump and Putin have never met and it was unclear how their very different personalities would gel. Trump is a flamboyant real estate deal-maker who often acts on gut instinct, while Putin is a former Soviet spy who calculates each step methodically.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along.”
Both have spoken about ending the enmity that has dragged U.S.-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,” Trump told a news conference in July last year.
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 U.S. security.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian leader would use the call to congratulate Trump on taking office and to exchange views on U.S.-Russian ties.
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Asked by reporters if Ukraine would come up, Peskov said: “This is the first telephone contact since President Trump took office, so one should hardly expect that (it)…will involve substantive discussions across the whole range of issues.
“We’ll see, let’s be patient.”
If Putin and 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.
For the Russian leader, there is much to gain. 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 Putin’s election prospects.
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Joseph Nasr and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Ralph Boulton)