Donald Trump will wade into the most contentious foreign policy issue of his tumultuous young presidency on Saturday, when he speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin as he considers whether to lift Obama-era sanctions against the Kremlin.
The call to Mr Putin, scheduled the same day as Mr Trump’s first White House calls with the leaders of Germany and France, will be his first chance to make good on his pro-Russia campaign rhetoric, in which he falsely boasted the Russian leader called him a genius and praised Moscow’s Syrian offensive as a forceful counterterrorism campaign.
During the campaign, Mr Trump raised the prospect of scrapping sanctions imposed on Moscow for Mr Putin’s support for Ukrainian separatists and his annexation of Crimea. Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide, said the move was being evaluated.
“All of this is under consideration,” Ms Conway told Fox News.
According to senior congressional staffers, a member of Mr Trump’s team has already drafted an executive order to lift sanctions on Russia. The staffers said they had learned of the report from concerned career personnel at the National Security Council, who privately sounded the alarm.
While scrutiny about possible ties between Mr Trump and the Kremlin coloured the presidential race, concerns intensified after the US intelligence community concluded Mr Putin had ordered a propaganda campaign to undermine Mr Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, including the hacking of campaign computer servers.
Mr Trump has the power to revoke many of the US sanctions as most were imposed through executive action rather than by Congress.
EU sanctions imposed in concert with the US are not due to be renewed until July, but European diplomats worry the EU’s already fragile consensus on maintaining them could quickly crumble following a unilateral White House decision.
“It would be seen certainly as a change because on this issue [the EU and US] have co-operated and co-ordinated closely with each other,” said a senior Brussels diplomat.
Russian politicians have greeted Mr Trump’s election with euphoria — the Russian parliament gave him a standing ovation and Mr Putin later claimed that no one but Russia thought Mr Trump would win — but the Kremlin said it was not expecting any quick decions on sanctions in Washington.
“This is the first phone contact since Trump took office. We’re hardly expecting substantive contacts across the board from this phone conversation,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters. “Let’s see and stock up on patience.”
Mr Peskov said no plans have been finalised for the two presidents to meet in person, though officials on both sides have been working behind the scenes to set up a summit in a neutral country, most likely Iceland.
In addition to unsettling European allies — particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was the lead advocate for the EU sanctions regime — the move could also wreak havoc on Mr Trump’s relations with Republicans in Congress, many of whom are hawkish on Russia.
Two Republican congressional staffers said a move to lift the sanctions could derail the Senate’s confirmation of Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s choice for secretary of state. Critics fear that the former ExxonMobil boss will not be tough enough on Russia given his previous business relationship with Mr Putin while running the oil company, a big Russia investor.
Mr Trump has asserted that he can improve relations with Russia as president and establish a better personal relationship with Mr Putin than Mr Obama.
Still, observers question what Mr Trump and his administration would want in return for lifting sanctions on Russia. One possibility would be a counter-terrorism agreement with Russia encompassing Syria, while others envisage a series of smaller compromises by Moscow, such as lifting a ban on US families adopting Russian children.
Russian officials have discussed holding the first Trump-Putin meetingin Reykjavik, which would echo the historic Reagan-Gorbachev meeting that helped bring about the end of the Cold War.
It would also underscore any rapprochement with Mr Trump on issues Mr Putin has long seen as core to Russia’s interests. These include abandoning the transatlantic doctrine of containment held by Nato, in favour of an end to western sanctions over Ukraine and a global anti-terror alliance led jointly from Washington and Moscow.
But officials in Moscow are wary of whether Mr Trump’s professed desire for warmer relations — which runs against public statements made by key cabinet figures — will be enough to end the impasse.
“The head of state of any country is obliged to act in the interests of his state first and foremost,” said Alexei Kondratiev, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament. “All these groundless statements people are making that Trump’s our guy are just wrong.”
Berlin is growing increasingly alarmed as Mr Trump has shown little sign of retreating from his views in his first week in office and instead pressed ahead with contentious proposals, such as the border wall.
Even Ms Merkel, who is generally restrained in criticising allies, has hinted of the problems presented by Mr Trump’s criticisms of the co-operative liberal world order and open economic ties.
Standing next to French president François Hollande in Berlin, the chancellor said: “We see that the global framework conditions are changing dramatically and quickly and we must respond to these new challenges, including those concerning the defence of a free society, those concerning the defence of free trade, and those concerning the economic challenges coming, for example, from the growing competitiveness of the developing countries.”
Additional reporting by Stephan Wagstyl in Berlin and Arthur Beesley in Brussels