President-elect Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone Monday afternoon, reportedly striking the kind of convivial tone that has been largely absent from Russia-U.S. relations under President Barack Obama’s administration.
The two agreed to strengthen ties between their countries, focusing on developing greater trade and economic relations, according to a statement released by the Kremlin. They also agreed to “pool efforts against major common enemy – international terrorism and extremism,” referring to Russia’s and America’s dual but strictly separate operations in Syria, and agreed to a potential in-person meeting.
“The Russian leader once again congratulated Trump on his victory at the presidential elections,” according to the Kremlin statement, “and noted readiness to build partner dialogue with the new administration on the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference into each other’s domestic affairs.”
Low oil prices as well as severe sanctions from the U.S. and EU in recent years have battered Russia’s economy, following its ongoing operation in eastern Ukraine and 2014 annexation of Crimea, which the U.S. considers illegal. Moscow inserted itself into the ongoing bloodshed in Syria last year, bolstering the regime of Bashar Assad as his forces fight to eliminate civil opposition, while the U.S. continues to support a separate campaign of rebel fighters trying to defeat the Islamic State group presence there.
Trump has not taken questions publicly since winning the presidency Nov. 8. On Friday he taped an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday, but did not discuss his past comments on Russia.
Amid possibly the lowest point in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, Putin and other members of his inner circle were visibly encouraged by Trump’s regular campaign pledges to strengthen relations with Russia. Reports also emerged during the campaign of close ties with Russia among some of Trump’s business interests, as well as with senior members of his campaign.
“I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good,” Trump said at the third presidential debate, held in October, saying Putin had “outsmarted” Obama and the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, on Syria and “missiles.”
Shortly after their discussion Russia on Monday began a new, intense air offensive against rebel positions in their Syrian stronghold in Aleppo. Moscow sailed one of its aircraft carriers, the Adm. Kuznetsov, into the Mediterranean last week to bolster its ability to deploy warplanes.
Relations between Russia and the U.S. have all but halted since the failed “Reset” policy Obama tried to implement through Clinton, then his secretary of state, which was intended to improve ties with Sergei Medvedev, serving as president at that time, instead of Putin. It is now limited to sideline meetings at international summits and routine military communications to deconflict the airspace over Syria.