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They traded compliments during the campaign. Those comments then became part of the campaign itself. And now that Donald Trump has won the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated him and raised the prospect of a fresh start in U.S.-Russia relations.
In a telegram, the Russian leader said he was confident he and Trump could start "a constructive dialogue based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and genuine consideration for each other's positions." He also expressed the hope that Trump would help resolve "the current crisis" in U.S.-Russian relations.
Russia closely followed the U.S. vote, with overnight coverage on the 24-hour state news channel, including an election map and an electoral vote counter in a corner of the screen. Before commercial breaks, two actors dressed as the Republican and Democratic candidates played out short skits: Trump sneaking a drink from Hillary Clinton's water bottle, or Clinton coughing in Trump's face.
According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin "wasn't glued to the television. He has a lot to do, after all, he's the president of the Russian Federation."
The election matters to Russia. The economy has been in a recession since 2014, caused by a drop in the price of oil – the country's main export – and punitive Western sanctions imposed in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Trump was largely seen as the favored candidate in Moscow, though last week, Putin denied he had a preference.
At one point in the U.S. campaign, Trump indicated he might consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and could review the sanctions against Russia. Trump also questioned NATO's security guarantees for U.S. allies, and was willing to make the most of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails, blamed on a Russian cyberattack.
A party in parliament
In the Russian parliament, there was a celebration when Trump's victory was announced.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist firebrand who advocates the restoration of the Soviet Union's borders, threw a Trump victory party in the parliament, serving sausage, candy and sparkling wine.
Speaking to state television, Zhirinovsky predicted Trump would ease sanctions and lower tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East.
"Everything will calm down, and humanity will breathe a sigh of relief," Zhirinovsky said.
The leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, disagreed. He said nothing would change, arguing that the United States has been following "a strategy of expansion" for the past 200 years.
Putin's closest allies took the middle road. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of parliament, said he hoped for more a more respectful tone in relations with the United States.
Volodin was echoing the words of his boss, who received foreign ambassadors at a Kremlin ceremony Wednesday. Putin told the diplomats that it "won't be an easy road" to repair relations with the United States, and repeated that Russia wasn't to blame.
Putin's conciliatory comments contrasted sharply with the Kremlin's reaction to Barack Obama's election to his first presidential term in 2008. While most of the world celebrated the day after Obama's victory, Russia's president at the time – Putin protégé Dmitry Medvedev – threatened to deploy nuclear-capable missiles to the border with Poland.
Following his inauguration, Obama reached out to Moscow with the so-called "reset" in relations, which had soured under President George W. Bush. Obama's first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, became responsible for finding as much common ground as possible with the Kremlin to advance the administration's foreign policy priorities: winding down two U.S. wars, reaching a deal over Iran's nuclear program, and reducing existing U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals.
But the reset failed. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in Moscow in 2011, as Putin prepared to seek a third presidential term, the Russian leader blamed Clinton for "sending a signal" to Russian opposition leaders.
Putin handily won Russia's 2012 presidential election and began a crackdown on his domestic opponents. Relations only worsened when Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed a rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration and its European allies responded with economic sanctions on Russia. Relations deteriorated even further when Russia sent war planes to support Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad last year.
Obama and Putin may both attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru later this month. A final decision on Putin's attendance is in the works, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Wednesday.
There are no plans for a Trump-Putin meeting in the foreseeable future, he said.
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