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Trump, Putin Statement Stirs Concern Among Some

Michael R. Gordon, Gordon Lubold

The Wall Street Journal

President Trump issued a symbolic joint statement Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a move that has stirred debate within the Trump administration and spawned concern among some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to people familiar with the document.

The unusual declaration is intended to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a meeting between American and Soviet troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945.

The broader intent is to underscore how the two nations can overcome their disagreements for a larger purpose, according to people familiar with its drafting.

“The ‘Spirit of the Elbe’ is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause,” it states.

But the move comes as the Pentagon and State department have complained about Russia’s behavior, and many officials remain deeply wary of Moscow’s intentions. A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment. 

Earlier this month, the Pentagon complained that Russian fighter jets twice buzzed American Navy planes over the Mediterranean Sea, while defense officials have accused Russia-based news organizations of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus

In recent months, State Department officials have repeatedly complained that Russia was providing critical military support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s offensive in Idlib province.

“I am sure this was a Russian initiative,” said Angela Stent, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and author of “Putin’s World,” a book on the Russian leader. “Putin wants validation from the United States that today’s Russia like the Soviet Union is a great power.”

The statement prompted concern among some lawmakers.

“Everyone knows that Trump has a bizarre infatuation with Russia’s autocratic leader and that Trump constantly plays into Putin’s hands,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D, N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a tweet.

But some arms-control proponents welcomed the statement.

“It is appropriate for the two nations to mark this historic victory,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a pro-arms-control foundation. “Yes, it serves Putin’s interests, but it can also serve ours if it helps us ‘put aside differences’ to cooperate on key issues, most importantly the extension of the New START treaty.”

That treaty, which limits long-range nuclear arms, is due to expire in February.

Within the Trump administration, the statement has been a subject of some debate. Some officials worried it might undercut the stern U.S. messages toward Moscow, according to a person familiar with the internal deliberations.

Joint statements commemorating Elbe day by Russian and U.S. leaders have been rare. President Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued such a declaration in 2010. That took place as the Obama administration was trying to “reset” relations with a new Russian leader and came shortly after the two sides had signed the New START agreement.

The U.S. has had a complicated relationship with Russia. The Pentagon has cast Russia and China as its primary adversaries, and last year the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty after accusing Moscow of deploying an illegal cruise missile. The Russians denied the allegation.

But at times the administration has also sought to cooperate with Moscow. Mr. Trump has spoken with Mr. Putin several times in recent weeks as the U.S. sought to end the dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil production that has aggravated the oversupply in the oil market. They also discussed the coronavirus crisis and arms control.

Russian analysts say Mr. Putin recently has tried to boost his capital with Western leaders, and particularly Mr. Trump, by showing through the oil deal that Moscow can work with the global community in times of crisis.

Earlier this month, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. said planned ceremonies between Russian and U.S. officials to commemorate the meeting at the Elbe had been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.