With the Russian ambassador's meetings seemingly a daily fixture in the CIA/FBI-leaked NYT or WaPo front page news, Russia warned on Friday that efforts to restore relations with the U.S. are being harmed by a “malicious campaign” waged by unknown Americans over meetings between its ambassador and President Donald Trump’s administration.
In an interview in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the political controversy over Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s contacts with U.S. officials is “harming our relations which are already in a bad condition, having been deliberately destroyed by the Obama administration." He added that “it’s clear that the current situation hinders the restoration of these relations on a positive path of development.”
Russia seeks “practical cooperation in areas where such cooperation is needed” with the U.S., including on counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, economic investment and a settlement to the Syrian war, Ryabkov said adding that “we’ll continue to work hard” to restore relations.
In addition to Ryabkov, Russia's deadpan Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued that contacts with officials and lawmakers are part of any ambassador's duties. According to AP, he said that the pressure on Sessions "strongly resembles a witch hunt or the times of McCarthyism, which we thought were long over in the United States as a civilized country." In the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a hunt for purported communist infiltrators in the U.S. government, often involving unfounded accusations.
Trump blamed Democrats for the controversy in a statement on Thursday night, "They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!"
At a news conference, Lavrov said Russia isn't going to mimic the U.S., but added that "if we applied the same principle to Ambassador (John) Tefft's activities in Russia and his contacts, it would have made quite a funny picture."
In a sarcastic Facebook post, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said she met Tefft in the ministry's lobby and warned him that he was putting himself in danger by meeting with Russian diplomats.
Over the past week, controversy over meetings with the ambassador prompted AG Jeff Sessions to recuse himself Thursday from investigations into alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, and led to Michael Flynn’s ouster as national security adviser last month Bloomberg adds.
Following years of confrontation with the U.S. under President Barack Obama, Russian officials saw hope for better ties when Trump took office. However, the Kremlin is becoming increasingly frustrated over the lack of progress after Trump heaped praise on President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and pledged to work with him, including in fighting terrorism.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Tuesday that Trump should make good on his pledge to mount a joint fight against Islamic State in Syria and there’d been “enough talk about it.” In his first speech to Congress on Tuesday, Trump didn’t mention Russia or Putin even as he declared that the U.S. is “willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.”
Meanwhile, also on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the U.S. ambassador’s presence at peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, has been the only contact on Syria so far. Speaking in a conference call, Peskov said that “there haven’t been any other substantive contacts, nor any movement in terms of interaction and cooperation in fighting terrorism”
“That’s regrettable, but on the other hand, it’s probably explained by the early stage” of new U.S. administration.
He also said taht the Kremlin has nothing to add to U.S. President Donald Trump’s description of U.S. controversy over Russia ties as “witch hunt.”
On the topic of a planned increase in U.S. defense spending, Peskov said that Russia isn't concerned as long as the strategic balance is not affected, and also noted that Russia isn’t interfering in French presidential election campaign.