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Putin is having fun with Trump's troubles — but he may not push the joke too far

  • Putin can't "pass up the opportunity to poke fun" at Trump and the U.S.
  • But the Russian strongman needs U.S. stability if he wants to improve relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni following their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2017.
Yuri Kadobnov | Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni following their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had fun in recent days at the expense of the United States — but don't expect him to be a permanent thorn in President Donald Trump's side.

Trump's White House has faced chaos since last week, when the president fired James Comey, who was director of the FBI as it investigated possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. This week, questions have risen about whether Trump tried to impede the FBI probe.

Putin seemed to enjoy the confusion following reports that Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian diplomats during a meeting in Washington last week. At a news conference Wednesday, Putin offered to provide a transcript of the conversation and said the U.S. is showing "political schizophrenia."

"At one level, Putin may find Trump's trials amusing, but he also knows they will make it almost impossible to restore a modicum of order to Russian-American relations." -Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

"I spoke to (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) today," said Putin with a smile. "I'll be forced to issue him with a reprimand because he did not share these secrets with us. Not with me, nor with representatives of Russia's intelligence services. It was very bad of him."

Putin — whom U.S. intelligence services believe is attempting to destabilize the American electoral system — enjoys watching Washington flounder and contributes to that confusion with his statements, experts said. But if Putin keeps joking about Trump's troubles, he may sow more anti-Russia sentiment among Americans who are already inclined to assume the worst about the president.

But Putin — who began Trump's administration hoping to establish better relations with the U.S. — may not try to hinder his American counterpart significantly, experts said.

"At one level, Putin may find Trump's trials amusing, but he also knows they will make it almost impossible to restore a modicum of order to Russian-American relations," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I suspect he regrets that, while also seeing opportunities in having the U.S. brought low," Sestanovich said.

'Still hopeful for a better relationship'

Putin will not "pass up the opportunity to poke fun" at the U.S., even at the expense of Trump, whom he sees as an outlet for potentially better treatment form America, said Olga Oliker, senior advisor and director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the Russian president may not want to make Trump's life more difficult at home in the long term.

"I think the Russians are still hopeful for a better relationship with the United States than they've had," she said.

For one, speculation had swirled that the Trump administration could lift sanctions on Moscow that the Obama administration slapped on Russia in response to election interference.

Putin has repeatedly denied meddling in the election, though the Kremlin is widely understood to interfere with Western elections, and to be doing so more than ever.

Though Putin seemed "gleeful" at his Wednesday news conference, coverage of Trump in Russian media has been "moderately positive" recently, said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank.

But Americans may not see the ribbing continue.

Said Aslund: "I think that Trump gets less criticism from Russia than from anywhere else and that he greatly appreciates that."

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