U.S.-Russia sanctions flap can be exploited politically by both Putin and Trump

President Trump is warning that U.S.-Russia relations are at a perilous nadir. But for both him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, this particular dark cloud has a distinct silver lining.

Both leaders can probably use the current imbroglio over U.S. sanctions to score political points with their respective domestic bases, analysts say. And after the sanctions bill that Trump reluctantly signed Wednesday, Kremlin and White House talking points have contained some striking similarities — suggesting that despite the seeming animosity, Trump and Putin may not actually be so far apart in their views.

Putin is widely expected to stand for reelection in March, and although a win is virtually assured, he naturally wants the biggest possible margin of victory. And the Russian leader is never more popular than when he is able to depict himself as a heroic savior battling outside threats — in this case, from Washington.

“He has to appear tough, to look as if he’s done the patriotic thing” in striking back against U.S. sanctions, said Angela Stent, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.

Putin has appealed to nationalist pride to garner support for his increasingly aggressive stance against the West since the European Union and United States first placed sanctions on Russia in 2014 for the annexation of Crimea and Russian’s incursions in eastern Ukraine.

In the run-up to next spring’s vote, the Russian leader will seek to bolster turnout by “rallying around the flag and appealing to that raw nationalism,” said James Nixey, the director of Chatham House’s Russian and Eurasia Program

With harsher U.S. sanctions, he said, the Russian leader can say, “Look at what America is doing to us. We’ve extended an olive branch to them and they have spurned us.”

Trump, who signed the sanctions bill after it was passed by veto-proof margins in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, on Thursday blamed U.S. lawmakers for the dramatic deterioration of relations that has accompanied the sanctions bill.

“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” he tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”

A day earlier, Moscow had also suggested that Congress was a driving force behind the discord. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused Trump’s administration — though not the president personally — of “handing over executive power to Congress,” thus demonstrating “total weakness.”

Even before Trump signed the sanctions measure, Moscow announced retaliation for it: the cutting, by nearly two-thirds, of staff at U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia. In a notable departure from past presidential practice in similar circumstances, Trump refrained from criticizing Putin for that move.

Putin, for his part, said he regretted that matters had come to such a juncture, but even as he announced Russia’s retaliatory steps, he voiced hopes for an eventual improvement in relations. Trump, after signing the sanctions bill, expressed similar sentiments.

In a post-signing statement to the media Wednesday, Trump portrayed himself as a canny deal maker who would have been able to more effectively influence Russian behavior, had he not been undercut by Congress.

“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected,” he wrote. “As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

Read President Trump's statements outlining his concerns about the Russia sanctions bill »

Among some Trump loyalists, the mere fact that he signed the sanctions bill — even though its lopsided margin of approval left him little choice — reinforces the notion that multiple investigations of potential Russian collusion with his campaign are, as Trump himself has so often put it, “fake news.”

The narrative that the president is not at all in thrall to the Kremlin got a shout-out Thursday from a senior Russian lawmaker. “Trump is no puppet,” Alexander Sherin, who sits on the parliamentary defense committee, told the Russian news outlet Life.ru.

But if Trump seems more sympathetic toward Russia than he is, for example, toward Congress, that also sits well with supporters. Opinion surveys point to a measurable increase in favorable attitudes about Russia among his GOP base, said Eric Edelman, a veteran diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Miller Institute at the University of Virginia.

Trump can thus depict himself as thwarted in attempts to build a constructive relationship for Moscow after his face-to-face encounters with Putin last month at the Group of 20 summit in Germany, Edelman said.

“I think he's going to try to spin this as: 'I had this great meeting, and now we're in a Cold War — thanks, Congress,’” he said.

Still, the president’s seeming insinuation that Russia-related strife emanated more from Capitol Hill than the Kremlin itself drew a sharp rebuke Thursday from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading Russia hawk.

Replying to Trump’s tweet, McCain pointedly echoed the president’s exact language in describing the U.S. relationship with Russia at a “dangerous low.”

But there he diverged, adding: “You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies.”

Staff writer King reported from Washington and special correspondent Ayres from London.

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