MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin praised President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, describing the American presence there as illegitimate and the Islamic State as largely defeated on the ground.
Putin told journalists at his annual year-end news conference that the Islamic State has suffered “serious blows”in Syria.
“On this, Donald is right. I agree with him,” Putin said.
Trump said Wednesday that the Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, although analysts say the militant group remains a deadly force. Russia — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally — turned the tide of the civil war in Assad’s favor in 2015 and has maintained its military presence there.
The United States and many of its allies denounced Russia’s military intervention in Syria. But Trump’s withdrawal is viewed by many — including some Trump backers — as an indirect boost for Moscow and its status as the main foreign power in Syria.
Moments after Putin’s statement, Trump tweeted about his decision to withdraw troops. He noted the presence of Iranian, Russian and Syrian forces, also enemies of the Islamic State, and said the United States is doing their work for them.
“Time for others to finally fight,” he said in a follow-up tweet.
Putin said the U.S. troop deployment to Syria, by contrast, was illegitimate because neither Assad’s government nor the United Nations had approved the U.S. mission.
“If the United States decided to withdraw its force, then this would be right,” Putin said.
Russia has been negotiating a political settlement to the civil war in Syria with Assad, neighboring Turkey and Russia’s ally Iran. The presence of U.S. troops was not helpful for achieving such a settlement, Putin said.
He cautioned, however, that Russia was not yet seeing signs of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
“The United States has been in Afghanistan already for 17 years, and almost every year they say they’re withdrawing their troops,” he said.
Putin, however, said nothing about the future of Russia’s extensive military presence in Syria, which includes a Mediterranean port used by Russian warships.
Putin also — again — took Trump’s side in defending his 2016 election victory, which critics say was tainted by Russian interference (which Russia denies). He drew a parallel to Britain, where politicians are in a bitter fight over how to implement the referendum vote in 2016 to exit the European Union.
The result, Putin suggested, was a crisis of democracy across the West. Western officials say that fomenting such a crisis is in fact the goal of Russian propaganda and influence efforts in Europe and the United States.
“People don’t want to acknowledge this victory — isn’t that disrespect for the voters?” Putin said of Trump’s election win. “Or in Britain, Brexit passed and no one wants to implement it. They’re not accepting the results of elections. Democratic procedures are being weakened, they’re being destroyed.”
Putin was tougher on Trump on arms control. He said no talks are occurring with the United States about extending a nuclear arms control treaty that will soon expire, raising the risk of a situation that would be “very bad for humanity.”
The New START treaty limits the numbers of nuclear warheads deployed by Russia and the United States, and it is set to expire in 2021.
“There are no negotiations on extending it,” Putin said at the wide-ranging news conference. “It’s not interesting or not needed — fine then.”
Putin has long sought to bring the United States to the table on nuclear arms control talks. Analysts say that is in part because it is one of the only international issues on which Moscow and Washington can face each other as equals.
But Trump and national security adviser John Bolton have expressed skepticism of the existing arms control architecture. Trump has announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the United States and Russia from having missiles with a range between 300 and 3,500 miles.
With the likely demise of the INF Treaty, New START would be the last major agreement limiting the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. If New START expires, “we will ensure our security,” Putin said. “We know how to do it. But this is very bad for humanity because it leads us to a very dangerous line.”