Donald Trump may have stood up Vladimir Putin once too often. After the U.S. president snubbed the Kremlin leader twice in less than a month, Russia is finally losing faith in Trump’s promise to improve relations and bracing instead for increased tensions.
Feted by Russian lawmakers with applause and champagne after his election in 2016, Trump’s mercurial decision-making is increasingly seen as a liability in Moscow. Russian officials were taken aback when Trump tweeted that he was canceling talks with Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina hours before they were due to meet last week, a decision one of them called really bad. Since then, Russian frustration has steadily grown, according to four senior officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.
“This is a signal for us that it’s difficult to deal with this person, that he’s unreliable and unsuitable as a partner,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. “Russian patience is coming to an end.”
The failure in Buenos Aires followed canceled talks between Trump and Putin in Paris on Nov. 11. It was the third such disappointment in 12 months, puncturing lingering Russian hopes of a breakthrough in U.S. relations nearly two years after Trump took office. As Putin warns of a new arms race over Trump’s threat to abandon a landmark nuclear treaty, the Kremlin’s left itself with little alternative than to dig in for confrontation over U.S. demands.
While Trump invited Putin to visit Washington at their Helsinki summit, that’s now “out of the question,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. They’re unlikely to meet again before the next G-20 summit in Japan in June, he said.
The disillusionment with Trump may mean Russia takes a harder line in talks with the U.S. on thorny issues including arms control, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the Iranian nuclear accord. It may also retaliate against possible future U.S. sanctions after Putin held back from taking measures in response to earlier rounds of penalties.
The U.S. has accused Russia of repeatedly engaging in “malign behavior” since Trump took office, making it politically difficult for him to work to improve relations even if he wanted to. Tensions may spike further in coming months if the U.S. decides to impose fresh sanctions over alleged Russian election meddling. The State Department may add penalties under a law invoked after a nerve-agent attack on a former spy in the U.K. Russia denies involvement in the attack.
Even as Congress and the White House ratcheted up sanctions, the Kremlin worked tirelessly to embrace Trump. Putin declared at the Helsinki summit in July that he’d wanted Trump to win the election, while insisting Russia hadn’t interfered. He also defended Trump after the U.S. president provoked a backlash at home by siding with Putin against the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle.
While Russian officials previously expressed “understanding” of Trump’s political difficulties amid U.S. investigations into meddling, this time, they openly cast doubt on him. The president blamed Russia’s naval clash with Ukraine near Crimea for the cancellation. His decision was announced hours after his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about plans for a Trump real-estate investment in Moscow.
Russia took account of Trump’s explanation, though “in my opinion, the real reason is in the internal political situation in the U.S.,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.
Russian state television, which formerly lauded Trump, now heaped ridicule on him. “What kind of a man is this? First he says it will happen, then it won’t,” said Evgeny Popov, host of the prime time 60 Minutes news program. “This is just stupidity, he seems to be an unbalanced individual. Trump was never our friend – never!”
Senior members of the ruling United Russia party even regretted Trump’s victory, though Putin has dismissed the notion that a presidency of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would have averted the current frictions.
“It’s far worse than it would have been under Clinton,” said Frants Klintsevich, a senator who sits on United Russia’s governing council. “She’s an experienced politician and any of her actions would have been based on logic and some kind of discussion. Here we’re seeing huge swings in one direction and another.”
Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, insisted there was “no offense taken” after the Kremlin had talked up the Argentina meeting only to be left embarrassed. Still, “We won’t beg the American side” for talks, he said.
While Trump has continued to signal an interest in better ties, he’s done so with less frequency publicly and his top aides have been quick to criticize Russian actions. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called the attack on Ukrainian ships a “reckless” and “outlaw” action at an emergency Security Council meeting. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called it a “dangerous escalation and a violation of international law.”
Russia’s being told to “give something” to improve relations with Washington, said Vladimir Lukin, a former Russian ambassador to the U.S. and deputy head of the upper house of parliament’s international affairs committee. “We can do ‘give and take’ but not ‘give and give.’ “
Russia may try to exploit divisions between the U.S. and the European Union, said Kortunov from the Kremlin-backed research group. EU sanctions, unlike the American ones, may be lifted if Russia took steps to end the separatist conflict in Ukraine, he said.
On the military front, Russia is already threatening to target European states if they host U.S. missiles after Trump withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
“Don’t try to talk to Russia from a position of force,” said Klintsevich, the lawmaker. “You’ll end up with such a headache you won’t know what’s hit you.”