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Is Putin Already Testing Trump?

In more ways than you think. Or it could be mere coincidence.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
e-ukraine
e-ukraine

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke on the phone, a hotly-anticipated, one hour call. Throughout the campaign and transition, Trump insisted he and Putin would get along well, and hinted at closer cooperation on a range of issues.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke on the phone, a hotly-anticipated, one hour call. Throughout the campaign and transition, Trump insisted he and Putin would get along well, and hinted at closer cooperation on a range of issues.

In the week following the phone call, fighting dramatically escalated in Eastern Ukraine, where Russia backs and supplies fighters. The violent escalation has left 25,000 citizens of Avdiivka are now living without electricity, heating, or water, according to the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

In that same week, anti-Kremlin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza’s lawyer said he suspects his client was poisoned again; he believes his near-fatal 2015 illness was the result of poison. And Putin’s domestic critics do have a tendency to get themselves poisoned, sometimes in exotic fashion.

And a technical tweak to U.S. export limits on information technology Thursday briefly became Exhibit A in Trump’s supposed rapprochement with Russia — before it wasn’t.

All of which led many in Washington to wonder if Moscow was already testing to see just how far they could push the neophyte president.

“Possible poisoning of Russian human rights leader Vladimir Kara-Murza needs investigating. Let’s put #RussiaOnNotice,” tweeted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued two separate statements. One warned Trump, “In the first of what will be many tests for your new administration, Russia and its proxy forces launched attacks against Ukrainian forces this week.” The other said, “The United States must draw strength from Vladimir [Kara-Murza]’s example and demand that those responsible are brought to justice.”

In some fora, the new administration has taken a conventional line. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley denounced Russian actions in Ukraine on Thursday, and said U.S. sanctions would remain in place until Russia restored and respected Ukrainian sovereignty. But observers in Washington and in Europe wonder if backing Ukraine is really a priority for the administration.

“I definitely think events in Ukraine are testing how much stomach there is [in the United States] to support Ukraine,” said Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Conley noted that there have been low level ceasefire violations there for ages, but that the last six days have been the most serious. Russia is ramping up activity from the Arctic to the Eastern Mediterranean to see what, exactly, U.S. (and, for that matter, European) policy will be, she said.

“The Kremlin has been emboldened by the election of Mr. Trump who vowed to seek good relations with Vladimir Putin and hinted at removing sanctions,” concurred Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute. An aggressive posture in Eastern Europe, he said, gives Russia a leg up in any future talks about counterterrorism cooperation, whether that’s “real or imaginary.” Art of the Deal, indeed.

Some see not a test, but simply Putin taking advantage of a compliant new president. Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council thinks the two leaders are in ideological sync, giving Putin a free hand.

“What we are seeing is really that the Trump administration seems to be infatuated with Putin and his Russia, for whatever reason,” he said.

Or the different episodes could be entirely unrelated to Putin, Trump, or any high-level gamesmanship between them.  “It’s not always a well-oiled hierarchy,” the Wilson Center’s Matthew Rojansky said describing Russia’s political leadership. Neither Moscow nor Kiev has direct, constant control over the fighters on either side in Eastern Ukraine, who could be taking advantage of the current situation, he said. Kara-Murza may not have been poisoned again — it could be a recurrence of symptoms, he said.

Why, do politicians, press, and public alike tend to read more into what may have been only isolated incidents? Because “somehow our relations with Moscow end up having this life and death, moralized quality to them,” Rojansky said.

For all Trump’s intentions to forge a more productive relationship with Moscow, the legacy of mutual mistrust might be his biggest obstacle. In U.S.-Russia relations, both sides naturally assume worst intentions in the other. And that remains true, it seems, independently of who sits in the Oval Office.

Photo credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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