MOSCOW — President Trump’s heady campaign rhetoric about possible detente with Russia is coming face to face with the realities of his chaotic new administration.
Details emerged Thursday about a telephone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Trump blasted a treaty negotiated under the Obama administration that limits nuclear weapons deployments — after Trump reportedly paused the call with Putin to ask an aide about the treaty. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, Trump then denounced the New START treaty as favoring Russia.
The Kremlin refused to comment Friday on the leaked details of the telephone call.
“I couldn’t confirm this,” Dmitri Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said in a phone call with journalists. “We’ve already reported everything that we considered necessary about the results of the telephone conversation. We have nothing to add.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier challenged the report in remarks to The Washington Post, saying that Trump knew what the treaty was but was merely asking an aide for advice.
Russia is enthusiastic about Trump’s rhetoric about bettering relations and his re-examination of American exceptionalism, a philosophy that Putin has blasted as dangerous.
But the more concrete (and still unclear) elements of Trump’s foreign policy, including new negotiations on arms control, are non-starters in Moscow, analysts say. And there is concern that Trump’s mercurial style will not be to Moscow’s benefit.
“It isn’t even his unpredictability that’s so worrying to Moscow, it’s the unilateral way in which he is acting,” said Alexey Makarkin, deputy director at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Although politicians have praised Trump on television, the Kremlin has had those concerns about the president since before the elections, Makarkin added.
The Obama administration has become a convenient target for Kremlin anger about U.S. foreign policy — although certain elements, such as the Iran nuclear deal, are seen in Russia as beneficial. Russia and the United States were among the six world powers that negotiated the nuclear pact with Iran in 2015.
“The problems start when we get into concrete policies,” Makarkin said. “Trump is interested in reviewing the entire legacy of the Obama administration. He rejects even those things that may be mutually beneficial, like the New START treaty.”
Moscow has limited hopes for Trump’s foreign policy and may be happy to see him spend more time focusing on his domestic goals, said Sergei Karaganov, a political scientist and dean of international relations at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“There is some skepticism about whether he can actually deliver,” Karaganov said, referring to Trump. “The best scenario is that we would stop cursing each other and have a slightly more civilized relationship.”
There may be a chance for cooperation fighting the Islamic State and finding a deal on managing the Ukraine conflict, he said.
But, he added: “Russia is not controlled in any kinds of agreements on nuclear arms control.”
Moscow has previously downplayed suggestions by Trump about reductions in nuclear arms, including the suggestion of a “grand bargain” following Trump’s interview with several European news agencies that suggested a nuclear arms treaty for sanctions relief.
“They have sanctions on Russia — let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” Trump was reported as saying, according to Reuters and other news outlets. “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are going to benefit.”
The Kremlin shot that down.
“Tying the issue of sanctions and the issue of nuclear reductions would unlikely be possible in the future from the expert viewpoint,” Peskov said in a televised interview the day after Trump’s inauguration in January. “Our president has said repeatedly that the issue of sanctions is not on our agenda. Russia wasn't the initiator of this issue. And, in Putin's words, it won't be the one to initiate lifting the restrictions.”
Putin supports disarmament, Peskov said, “but it must be fair, proportionate and without upsetting this balance.”
The New START treaty set limits on both countries’ deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,550 each. It does not limit non-deployed warheads.
Trump mentioned the treaty, which he called the “start-up,” in all three debates with Democrat Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. He charged that Russia had increased its warheads inventory and said, erroneously, that the United States was not permitted to do the same for non-deployed weapons.