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Reading The Readouts: A Closer Look At The Trump-Putin Phone Call

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump

For Americans and Russians looking for clues about how relations will shape up under U.S. President Donald Trump, the Kremlin and White House readouts of his first postinauguration phone call with Vladimir Putin had something for everyone -- and not quite enough for anyone.

Beyond the upbeat talk of mending badly strained ties and cooperating against terrorism, the two statements left plenty of questions about exactly what the two presidents discussed in the January 28 call and what, if anything, they agreed on in any detail.

RFE/RL takes a closer look at what the readouts said -- and left unsaid -- about four key issues.


If you’re skeptical about speculation that Trump is about to ease or lift sanctions imposed on Russia by former President Barack Obama’s administration, you’ve got plenty of grounds for it: Neither the Kremlin statement nor the much shorter White House readout, issued a few hours later, made any reference to sanctions.

Furthermore, officials on both sides said the sanctions -- imposed over Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014, support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and alleged interference on Trump's behalf in the U.S. election -- were not discussed in the call, which came a day after Trump said it was “very early” to be talking about lifting them.

But those who think Trump may be closer than he suggests to easing sanctions found support for their suspicions in the Kremlin statement, which said the presidents stressed the importance of "restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties" between their countries.

Some observers in both Russia and the West interpreted that as a hint that at least some of the punitive measures will go on the chopping block to clear the way for commerce.

And what of the insistence in Washington and Moscow that Trump and Putin didn’t discuss the sanctions at all?

Well, the argument goes, at this point it is in neither president’s interest to move too quickly, at least in public. Trump is under pressure from both U.S. political parties and key European allies to keep sanctions in place. For Putin, it’s because Russia has made a show of saying that it can endure any hardship and is not pleading for the punishments to be lifted.


In Kyiv, Trump’s election has prompted fears that the United States could sacrifice support for Ukraine for better relations with Russia. That would make the country even more vulnerable to influence and interference from Moscow, which has also backed separatists in a war against government forces that has killed more than 9,750 people.

Those concerns were hardly soothed by the Kremlin readout of the call, which said that the two agreed to “establish partner-like cooperation" on international issues including what it called "the crisis” in Ukraine.
For some observers, that read like a suggestion that Ukraine’s fate would be in the hands of a newly forged partnership between Moscow and Washington.

Fanning such fears may have been the Kremlin’s intent. But it could also be an overinterpretation; the wording might mean little more than that Trump and Putin agreed that their countries should interact constructively on a range of global issues -- the anodyne stuff of past statements, at least during warmer times in the relationship.

Anyone who hoped Trump’s team would shed more light on the subject was disappointed: There was no mention of Ukraine in the White House statement.

A mug depicting Trump and Putin for sale in St. Petersburg on the U.S. president's inauguration day, January 20.
A mug depicting Trump and Putin for sale in St. Petersburg on the U.S. president's inauguration day, January 20.

Syria And Terrorism

Putin has long accused the United States of double-standards on terrorism. The Obama administration said Moscow used the fight against the extremist group Islamic State as a pretext for a Syrian air campaign aimed mainly at backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Remarks by Russian officials suggest that the election of Trump, who has repeatedly expressed hopе that the two countries can get together and “knock the hell out of” Islamic State, has raised the Kremlin’s hopes that closer cooperation against terrorism -- and with it, perhaps, closer positions on issues ranging from Ukraine to human rights -- is imminent.

Both readouts support that idea, making clear that fighting Islamic State and terrorism was the main topic and a top priority.

The White House statement, in fact, mentioned no other specific issue aside from bilateral relations, while the Kremlin readout listed several others including Ukraine, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and nuclear proliferation.

But the Kremlin statement, which was substantially longer than the White House readout, seemed to hint at more specific cooperation -- particularly in Syria, where the two countries have conducted separate bombing campaigns.

“The presidents called for the establishment of real coordination of Russian and American actions with the aim of crushing [IS] and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” it said.

The White House statement did not go quite that far, saying that topics addressed during the hour-long call ranged “from mutual cooperation in defeating [IS] to efforts in working together to achieve more peace throughout the world, including Syria.”

It concluded by saying that both presidents “are hopeful that after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”


A phone call is one thing, but face-to-face talks would be likely to send a stronger signal that ties are on the mend. Meeting in person sooner rather than later is arguably of particular importance to Putin, who may be eager for the optics of a superpower summit.

After initial talk of a meeting soon after Trump’s inauguration, Russian officials have sought to manage expectations recently by saying it could take months to arrange.

Still, the Kremlin statement seemed to suggest that the presidents could get together soon, saying that they agreed to order subordinates to come up with a potential time and place for a personal meeting.

The White House statement made no mention of a personal meeting.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.