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Kremlin sours on Trump after Putin snubs

Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

MOSCOW -- 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.

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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.

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