WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has congratulated Vladimir Putin two days after the Russian leader’s landslide election victory, saying he hopes the two leaders will soon meet to discuss several crises around the world.
Trump said he congratulated Putin on his win during a phone call on March 20 and said he hopes the two leaders can meet in the “not too distant future” to discuss what he called the arms race, Ukraine, North Korea, and Syria.
“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race,” he told reporters in Washington.
The Kremlin said in a statement following the call that "special attention has been paid to working out the issue of holding a possible meeting at the highest level."
“The two leaders spoke out in favor of developing practical cooperation in various areas, including in ensuring strategic stability and combating international terrorism. In particular, they stressed the importance of concerted efforts to curb the arms race,” the statement said.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, won more than 76 percent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission.
The election was marred by alleged fraud, pressure to vote, and what international observers said was the lack of a "real choice."
While many world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron, wasted little time in contacting Putin following the March 18 vote, Trump’s silence was seen as a show of the tense state of relations between the two countries.
A number of Republicans criticized Trump for making the call, including Senator Mitch McConnell, who said that there was a “lack of credibility” in the election result.
"An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," said Senator John McCain.
He added that by congratulating Putin, Trump has "insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future."
Earlier on March 20, the Kremlin downplayed the absence of a congratulatory message from Trump with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that he didn’t see the lack of contact as an "unfriendly move," speculating that Trump's schedule might not have allowed for it.
The call came after White House said on March 19 that it is "not surprised by the outcome."
Ties between Russia and the United States have been severely strained by disagreements over issues including Russia's aggression in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and its alleged interference in Western politics and elections.
On March 15, Washington imposed sanctions on Russian entities and individuals over what U.S. intelligence agencies say was Moscow's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that put Trump in the White House.
The Kremlin said another point of contention, Russia’s alleged role in the poisoning of a former spy with a deadly nerve agent in Britain -- the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II -- was not touched upon during the call. Moscow has denied any involvement in the attack.
Since the election, Putin has toned down his rhetoric against the West, saying on March 19 that Russia wants to build "constructive" relations with other countries but that "not everything depends on us.”
Trump praised Putin and called repeatedly for better ties with Russia during his campaign, but relations have remained tense.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and three congressional committees are investigating the alleged Russian meddling in the election and whether associates of Trump colluded with Russia.
Russia denies meddling and Trump says there was no collusion.