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Russia Denies Reports Of Contact With Trump Campaign


How is all this news going down in Russia? Well, we're joined by NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim to find out. Lucian, what are you hearing?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, it's really been a crazy amount of news. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has really had his hands full. As regards the resignation of Michael Flynn, he has repeatedly said that he doesn't want to comment on what he calls a domestic American issue. As for the other news, the Kremlin has been issuing standard denials. There's been the report on alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian spies. There's The New York Times story about Russia deploying cruise missiles in violation of an arms control treaty.

Today, Peskov really criticized those articles for their anonymous sourcing, which he called ridiculous and not based on fact. He said it's become very difficult these days to distinguish between reality and fake news, which might actually sound pretty familiar to American listeners.

SIEGEL: Yeah. As for that article about the cruise missiles, we hear on this program elsewhere from Michael Gordon, The New York Times reporter who broke that story. Lucian, give us some context here. For the Kremlin, what are the priorities in their relations with the U.S.?

KIM: Well, I think the Kremlin has two priorities that are very closely linked. First of all, it's getting U.S. sanctions lifted. It's really as simple as that. And the second priority is fighting terrorism together. More than anything else, Russia would like the U.S. to forget about Ukraine - which is the reason for the sanctions - and become a partner in fighting international terrorism. Putin actually made that offer to Obama before he went into Syria in 2015, and he's again offering that to Trump.

I think really in the Kremlin, they would just love to see Russian MIGs and American F-16s flying missions together. Tomorrow is probably going to be the most important day for the Kremlin since Trump's inauguration. We have two very high-level meetings. Secretary of State Tillerson will be making his first trip abroad to Germany, where he will meet Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. And at the same time, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Dunford will be meeting his Russian counterpart.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the sanctions as a top priority, lifting sanctions. If I were an ordinary Muscovite, would I feel the bite of sanctions?

KIM: Well, yes. I mean, sanctions alone haven't done so much damage to the Russian economy. Russia is also being hurt by low oil prices. And sort of one of the collateral effects of sanctions is that they create a bad investment climate for Russia and make it difficult for Russian companies to borrow. As far as just ordinary citizens are concerned, once those sanctions were instituted by the West, Russia responded with counter sanctions. Basically Russia instituted an embargo on food products from Western countries which they depend on, which drove up the price of food.

SIEGEL: The Kremlin made no secret that it preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in last year's election. Do you get any sense the Russians are worried that they might have backed the wrong horse last year?

KIM: (Laughter) Well not, yet. They're still cautiously optimistic. But we've already seen that the Trump administration seems to be compensating for an image of being too soft on Russia. We had Nikki Haley, the new ambassador to the United Nations, making very tough comments about Russia. The same goes for Secretary of State Tillerson during his confirmation hearings. And just yesterday we had Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, saying that Trump expects Crimea to go back to Ukraine. That last statement really caused some consternation in Moscow today. The speaker of the Russian parliament said he wanted to hear that in Trump's own words.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.