US relations with Russia hit rough patch, but there are signs things may soon improve

President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin went back and forth making public statement about their countries’ nuclear arsenals this week, days after President Barack Obama used his last press conference of 2016 to warn Russia against continued hacking.

And on Wednesday, the Kremlin said almost all communication channels between Moscow and the US were frozen.

While it seemed tensions were high between the two countries, the incoming Trump administration seemed to be looking to soothe relations with the Kremlin. And Putin appeared open to that possibility.

At his year-end press conference on Friday, Putin said he believed that “a substantial part of the American people share similar views with us on the world’s organisation, what we ought to be doing, and the common threats and challenges we are facing.” He noted that shared values could provide a “good foundation” to “build relations between two such powerful countries.”

Putin also sent a Christmas letter to Trump earlier this month, which Trump fawned over in a statement issued Friday.

In the letter, Putin extended his “warmest Christmas and New Year greetings” to “his excellency Donald Trump” and offered “sincere wishes to you and your family of sound health, happiness, well being, success, and all the best.”

It all seemed to indicate an opening for increased diplomacy between the US and Russia despite recent tensions.

“At Putin’s year-end conference today he struck a softer tone on a number of issues — nukes, Ukraine, etc.,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in an email.

“President-elect Trump also signalled a willingness to reassess the relationship between DC and Moscow in his release of Putin’s letter,” Zilberman added. “What will be important to watch is the way in which both sides approach they very real and very thorny issues in the relationship — which Putin said at his conference currently ‘can’t be worse.'”

Putin saying that current relations “can’t be worse” seems to indicate a hope for improvement.

“Starting at such a low point presents an opportunity — through small verifiable confidence building measures — to explore how these deep conflicts in the relationship might be addressed,” Zilberman said. “The warmer tone from the incoming White House and the Kremlin are a play to explore those possibilities.”

Nuclear proliferation might end up being a key issue in US-Russia relations going forward.

On Thursday, Putin boasted about the strength of his military, claiming it was more powerful than any potential aggressor. Trump tweeted hours later the US must “expand its nuclear capability” until “the world comes to its senses.”

And on Friday, Trump went even further. MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski said that when she asked him if his tweet might spur other countries to increase their nuclear arsenals, he replied, “let it be an arms race.”

While most experts agreed that Trump’s statements about nuclear proliferation were dangerous, the Kremlin might actually be happy to rise to the challenge.

“I think Mr. Putin will be delighted,” James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Business Insider on Friday.

“Putin has for a long time called for strengthening Russia’s nuclear deterrent remaining within the limits of arms control. But this is fantastic from his perspective because it legitimises a lot of the dangerous and destabilizing action he’d like to do with Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”

A supposed military challenge from America could play well domestically in Russia, Acton said.

“From his own perspective, that’s not such a bad thing,” Acton said. “The Putin regime in recent years has been founded upon anti-Americanism. A threat from America is a useful thing for him to have domestically.”

At the end of the day, Trump “is clearly [Putin’s] man in the White House,” Acton said.

“Russia’s position for the next few months is going to be to not wind up Trump, to try to get a level relationship with him,” Acton said. Still, “a bromance is not a good relationship on which to build US-Russia relations.”

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