President Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Saturday and agreed to establish “real coordination” to “crush ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria,” the Kremlin said, referring to the Islamic State.
The White House put out a short statement later on the one-hour phone call, saying it “ranged in topics from mutual cooperation in defeating ISIS to efforts in working together to achieve more peace throughout the world including Syria.”
It added that “the positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”
Cooperation with Russia in Syria would represent a break with current policy and a rift among Republican foreign policy leaders. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., on Friday warned Trump against cooperating too closely with Putin, whom he accused of propping up a “murderous regime” in Syria. Word of warming relations also comes after the U.S. intelligence concluded the Russians meddled in the presidential election.
The Kremlin’s statement, issued before one put out by the White House, said nothing about reports that Trump is considering lifting sanctions on Russia. McCain also warned Trump not to ease up on sanctions, saying he would work in Congress to give them the force of law.
The Kremlin said the two presidents also discussed “major aspects of the Ukrainian crisis,” as well as discussing “possible dates and venue of their personal meeting.” The two also agreed to “maintain regular personal contacts.”
Russia boosted its military support to the regime in Syria in 2015 after it appeared rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad were threatening his hold on power. Moscow claimed that its airstrikes in Syria were aimed at terrorists. The White House, State Department and Pentagon maintained that Russian attacks primarily targeted moderate opponents of Assad and not the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The Pentagon and Russian military have established communication links to prevent accidents between warplanes. The Pentagon has stressed that this effort does not indicate cooperation with the Russian military.
McCain labeled Putin a “murderer and a thug” and said he would “never be our partner, including in fighting ISIL.”
“Russia has propped up the murderous Assad regime as it has waged war on the Syrian people and killed more than 400,000 civilians,” McCain said in a statement. “Russia’s military has targeted Syrian hospitals and first responders with precision weapons. Instead of targeting ISIL, Russia has focused its operations against the moderate Syrian opposition, which has only empowered extremist forces in the country.”
The call with Putin and other world leaders capped off a dizzying nine-day stretch in which Trump appeared to be in perpetual motion, signing 15 executive actions, speaking to 11 world leaders, visiting three federal agencies and, on Friday, hosting British Prime Minister Theresa May.
In addition to Putin, Trump spoke Saturday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. He was scheduled to speak with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday night.
Trump assured Abe of the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security, according to the White House. Trump and Abe also discussed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea this week and the threat from North Korea. They spoke about deepening trade ties days after Trump dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trade deal. The leaders plan to hold a meeting at the White House on Feb. 10.
For Merkel, the top issues on the agenda was the U.S. commitment to NATO. Trump seemed to question that commitment during the campaign — questioning whether European allies were paying their fair share and whether the alliance was sufficiently tooled to address terrorism.
But in their call Saturday, the two leaders “agreed on the NATO Alliance’s fundamental importance,” according to a White House summary of the call. Trump plans to visit Germany in July for the G-20 Summit of major economies.
The most significant call was with Putin, whose interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has led to questions about Trump’s relationship to the Russian leader and strained Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community.
“I don’t know the gentleman,” Trump said in a press conference with May on Friday. “I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That’s possible, and it’s also possible that we won’t. We will see what happens.”
Trump said the fight against the Islamic State would be at the top of his agenda. But Putin has also been chafing under U.S. and European sanctions imposed by President Obama over Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the computer hacking of Democratic Party email accounts during the campaign.
Trump declined to discuss the sanctions issue during a joint news conference Friday with May.
“As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that,” Trump said. “But we look to have a great relationship with all countries, ideally.”
Heading into Saturday’s other phone calls, Trump criticized Germany and France for their refugee policies, claiming they led to terrorist incidents in those countries. He criticized Merkel by name, accusing her at one point of “ruining Germany.”
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