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Putin expresses hope for better Russia-US relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin has written to Donald Trump to express his hope that Moscow and Washington improve relations after the US president-elect is inaugurated on January 20. 

“I hope . . . we will be able — by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner — to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral co-operation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level,” Mr Putin wrote to Mr Trump on December 15. 

Shortly before Mr Trump released the letter on Friday, Mr Putin used his annual press conference in Moscow to suggest that he believed US-Russia relations would assume a better footing once the New York property mogul entered the White House.

Mr Trump welcomed what he called a “very nice letter from Vladimir Putin”, which was released a day after both men had talked publicly about the need to strengthen their nations’ nuclear arsenals.

“His thoughts are so correct. I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path,” Mr Trump said in a statement that accompanied the released English translation of the letter. 

Mr Putin, who was praised by Mr Trump during the campaign, in his speech implied that Russia viewed the US as a much lesser threat following the election of Mr Trump. US-Russia relations deteriorated badly over the past decade, hitting a post-Cold War low over the crises in Ukraine and Syria.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama has also accused the Kremlin of orchestrating cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee in Washington that some Democrats believe cost Hillary Clinton the election.

On Friday, Mr Putin said that Russia was stronger than any aggressor, in comments that suggested a softer stance on the US. “What is an aggressor? It’s someone who could potentially attack the Russian Federation. We’re stronger than any potential aggressor, I can confirm that now.”

It is not uncommon for world leaders to write to incoming US presidents ahead of their inauguration, but it is very unusual for such letters to be made public. 

During his campaign and since his election, Mr Trump has taken a more conciliatory approach to Mr Putin and Russia than the Obama team.

In a move that has confounded many experts in Washington, he has even rejected as “ridiculous” the conclusions of the Central Intelligence Agency that Russia was behind the cyber attacks before the election.

Democrats have also raised red flags about the nomination of Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, who cultivated close ties with Mr Putin, for secretary of state. 

While some experts expect a thaw in US-Russia relations under a Trump administration, the president-elect has made vague comments in recent days that have introduced ambiguity about his stance on nuclear policy.

On Thursday, Mr Trump tweeted that the US should “expand its nuclear capability”, leaving experts to debate whether he was just supporting an existing modernisation programme or wanted to boost the size of the US nuclear arsenal. 

Mr Trump’s aides played down the significance of the tweet by suggesting that he was referring to the need to prevent nuclear proliferation and to modernise the US nuclear deterrent to ensure “peace through strength”. But asked about the tweet on Friday, Mr Trump seemed unperturbed about potentially sparking an arms race.

“Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” he told MSNBC television.

During the campaign, Mr Trump stunned foreign policy experts by suggesting that Japan and South Korea should consider developing nuclear weapons to protect themselves from North Korea and to cut the burden on the US which would be compelled to help its allies in the face of an attack from the regime in Pyongyang.

Mr Putin on Friday said he did not think that Mr Trump’s tweet about the US nuclear arsenal was made in response to his own comments about the Russian nuclear forces.

Twitter: @dimi and @maxseddon

Via FT