U.S. President Donald Trump will speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Saturday, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. The leaders will discuss a range of topics including how to tackle radical Islamic terrorism. More controversially, the removal of sanctions may also be up for discussion, as the White House continues to forge new ties with the Kremlin.
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White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also confirmed the call will take place on Saturday. “I assume they will discuss, in the interests of their respective countries, how to come together and work together on issues where you can find common ground and where these two nations could maybe defeat radical Islamic terrorism,” Conway told CBS’ “This Morning” show on Friday.
Several sources on Thursday suggested that the White House may be ready to sign an executive order relaxing the sanctions against Russia, imposed after it annexed Crimea in 2014. When asked about sanctions being lifted, Conway said that “all of that was under consideration.” However, when asked if Russia needed to “change its behavior” before those sanctions are lifted, Conway avoided giving a direct answer.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that any firm agreements were unlikely to be made during the initial call. “This is the first telephone contact since President Trump took office, so one should hardly expect that this phone call will involve substantive discussions across the whole range of issues. We’ll see. Let’s be patient.”
The U.S. government, in close collaboration with the European Union (EU), put diplomatic and financial sanctions in place against Russia in March 2014 as punishment for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. The aim was to “send a strong message to the Russian government that there are consequences for their actions that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The main focus of the sanctions was banning the sale of military equipment to Russia.
Last month, in one of his last acts in office, former President Barack Obama issued further sanctions after U.S. intelligence agencies said hackers working for the Kremlin had sought to interfere in the presidential election.
It wouldn’t be that surprising if the two leaders ended up discussing the possible lifting of sanctions. Just two weeks ago, Trump indicated that he was was willing to do just that: “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us… Why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” the president told the Wall Street Journal.
Trump is also scheduled to speak to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday and Russia is expected to be the main topic of conversation. A German government source speaking to the Evening Standard newspaper said that even if Trump told Merkel he would lift sanctions against Russia, the chancellor — and the EU in general — is not necessarily ready to follow suit.
Despite many seeking to keep the sanctions in place, a report this week suggested that Russia — and in particular its military — had not suffered as a result of the conditions, and had in fact been strengthened. “Sanctions have not been strong enough,” said a senior U.S. defense official speaking anonymously to Foreign Policy. To have a real impact they would need to “go much, much further.”