World Europe First Look

What crisis? Moscow plays it cool on Flynn’s firing, missile launch, and campaign allegations

As allegations fly about improper contact between the Trump team and Russia, Moscow remains carefully neutral. The possibility of improved relations between the two countries may be at stake.

A caricature of President Trump on sale in a shopping mall in Moscow on Feb. 15, 2017. The poster costs 70,000 rubles (about $1,200). As Mr. Trump has become increasingly mired in internal political battles, the Kremlin is patiently waiting for him to deliver on his promises to mend ties with Russia weighing its statements to avoid jeopardizing a chance for a thaw.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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It’s been a turbulent week for US-Russian relations, with allegations about improper contact with Russia seemingly coming from all corners of the United States. In the midst of the storm, however, Moscow appears determined to stay the course.

On Monday night, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after just 23 days in office. Mr. Flynn was accused of discussing the sanctions on Russia with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington before President Trump took office and ultimately admitted that he had given US officials “incomplete information” about these calls. On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Russia had violated an arms control treaty, and the same day, The New York Times published a piece alleging contact between members of Mr. Trump’s election campaign and Russian intelligence officials.

Many observers expected that the events of the past week would be sure to bring about a change in US-Russian relations. But Moscow, for its part, has been careful not to encourage any souring of relations, carefully calibrating official statements to keep the possibility of better relations open.

The perception that the new US administration has close ties with Russia – as well as Trump’s stated desire for rapprochement – has been a source of unease for many in Congress and ordinary Americans since the presidential election campaign. Concerns about excessively close relations were stoked by reports that Russia had hacked the presidential election and have only intensified since the Trump team moved into government.

In Russia, by contrast, Trump’s election brought the hope of improved relations. Ties between the two countries have been strained since the Russian annexation of Crimea, which prompted the Obama administration to impose economic sanctions.

That hope has somewhat dissipated now: Polling by the Russian independent Levada Center polling agency found that 46 percent of Russians still expected strengthened US-Russia ties, dropping from 54 percent in November. But most agree with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that it’s “too early to say.”

"No one here is losing patience, because there haven't been any excessive expectations," Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Associated Press. "No one expected Trump to make some incredible moves on the Russian track in two or three weeks. Things here are viewed from a far more pessimistic, temporizing perspective."

That attitude has shaped Moscow’s responses to the recent series of allegations.

Mr. Peskov distanced Moscow from the controversy over former NSA Flynn’s ties to the US, calling it “none of [Russia's] business” and framing it as an internal issue in the Trump administration. Though Flynn was widely seen a a friend of Russia, it’s unclear how significant his role in negotiations would have been. According to Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, who spoke with the AP, Russia expected from the time of Rex Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state that he, not Flynn, would be doing the negotiating.

In a daily briefing on Wednesday, Peskov pushed back against reports that Russia had violated an arms control treaty that bans the US and Russia from using ground-based intermediate-range missiles.

"Russia has been and remains committed to its international commitments, including to the treaty in question," he said.

And following the New York Times report that alleged contact between Russian intelligence officials and the Trump presidential campaign, Peskov questioned the veracity of the information.

"Let's not believe anonymous information," he said, according to Reuters, calling the report “not grounded in fact.”

The Kremlin had previously indicated that it was not expecting any dramatic change in relations until the two presidents met for the first time. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week suggested that he and Trump meet in Slovenia, where first lady Melania Trump was born, but said it would be up to Trump to name the time and place.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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