After months of overtures from President Donald Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration is trading harsh diplomatic words with Moscow, further dimming the prospects for a strategic alliance between the two countries.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer opened his Monday briefing by reading a statement saying the U.S. “strongly condemns” the detention of hundreds, including leading Putin critic Alexei Navalny, following a weekend crackdown on peaceful anti-corruption protests across Russia.
The statement featured the toughest language Trump’s White House has directed at Putin’s government, surprising some Russia hawks unsure whether Trump—who has repeatedly avoided criticizing Putin—would allow the government to rebuke Moscow’s actions. As a candidate, Trump frequently promised to seek friendly relations with Moscow, but that talk has cooled in recent weeks amid intense scrutiny of his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Experts say Putin is highly sensitive to American criticism of his internal political actions, and the Russian leader could react angrily to the condemnation. But it remains unclear whether the statement reflects carefully considered U.S. policy. The top Russia jobs at the State Department and Pentagon remain unfilled. A White House official said the incoming senior national security council director for Russia, Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill, has not yet started her job.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has in recent weeks steadily sharpened its rhetoric about the Trump administration, which has recently taken steps perceived in Moscow as adverse to Russian interests.
On Saturday, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman blasted new Trump administration sanctions against companies doing business with Syria, Iran and North Korea, whose targets included eight Russian companies. In a statement posted on Facebook, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said her government was “bewildered and concerned” by the U.S. move.
The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said the U.S. action “undermines the prospects of setting up comprehensive multilateral cooperation” to jointly fight terrorists. “Washington again does the bidding of those who made a consistent destruction of Russia-US cooperation their main priority,” Zakharova wrote.
And shortly before Spicer spoke on Monday, Moscow’s top diplomat pounced on reports that a March 17 U.S. air strike killed as many as 200 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was “startle[d]” by the report of the air strike, and said Moscow had requested a special briefing at the United Nations Security Council. Lavrov claimed that “several other tragic incidents in which civilians died have happened since” in the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city since then, according to an official transcript of his remarks posted online by Russia’s foreign ministry.
Lavrov, following a standard Russian playbook of flipping charges back at an accuser, also suggested that the joint U.S. and Iraqi offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS was more brutal than the recent Russian and Syrian military campaign in Aleppo, Syria. “We have been monitoring the operation to liberate Mosul since its inception, because we remembered how some of our Western colleagues criticized us during the operation in eastern Aleppo,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov argued that Russia—which was widely condemned for brutal tactics, including air strikes on hospitals and aid workers—had actually protected civilian lives in Aleppo by opening a “corridor” to allow militants to leave the city, reducing the scale of Russia’s military operation there.
He also urged that a similarly “cautious and responsible approach would be used by the coalition in its further actions in Mosul.” (The U.S. and Iraqi militaries have each launched investigations into the March 17 Mosul strike.)
“I don’t think anyone in the Pentagon will take kindly to being lectured by the Russians about what happened in Mosul,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Bill Clinton White House official handing Russia issues who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Sadly, this is part of a familiar Russian playbook that has been used time and again by Putin, Lavrov and other senior figures,” Weiss added.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election in part to exact revenge on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who publicly backed major street protests against Putin in 2011.
Official Trump administration statements relating to Russia have so far generally tracked those of the Obama administration, which could suggest that U.S. officials are following old guidance as they await fresh policy direction.
More detail could come when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Brussels on Friday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at which Russia is certain to be a main topic. Tillerson originally planned to skip the meeting, creating an uproar among NATO allies anxious about Trump’s commitment to European security.
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