U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he is only in the early stages of considering whether to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia, as British Prime Minister Theresa May, other foreign officials and lawmakers at home voiced concerns that such a move would be premature.
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With Trump expected to speak on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since taking power a week ago, speculation has been rife that Trump is close to lifting sanctions imposed on Russia by then-President Barack Obama over Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014.
Such a move would likely cause consternation among European allies as well as many in the U.S. Congress who are also troubled by Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war and by the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow meddled in the U.S. election campaign.
"As far as the sanctions, (it is) very early to be talking about that," Trump said, while insisting he wanted to follow through on his campaign pledge to pursue better relations with Russia.
Trump's caution on the Russian sanctions came in response to a question at a joint news conference at the White House with British Prime Minister Theresa May, the first foreign leader to visit the president since his inauguration.
At the news conference, May made clear Britain wants to continue sanctions until Putin carries out the requirements in a ceasefire agreement arranged in Minsk, Belarus in 2014. This view is shared by European allies who fear Putin could become more expansionist if he feels Trump will not intervene.
"We believe the sanctions should continue until we see the Minsk agreement fully implemented. And we’ve been continuing to argue that inside the European Union," May said.
Earlier, U.S. Senator John McCain, like Trump a Republican, urged Trump not to lift the sanctions, which he called "a reckless course."
"If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law," said McCain, a long-time Putin critic.
Former NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, urged "strong caution" against lifting "any sanctions on Russia without concrete concessions."
The White House encounter between Trump and May was heavily scrutinized for signs on how the relationship would develop between leaders of two powers that have long touted a "special relationship," and that are key members of NATO alliance.
They both rose to power based on anti-establishment uprisings in their country.
Trump, a wealthy real estate developer and former reality TV star, had never held public office when he was elected in November. May stepped in to lead Britain after the June referendum Brexit vote to leave the European Union that prompted her Conservative predecessor, David Cameron, to resign.
It was notable that Trump did not give much in the way of vocal support for NATO, which he has previously declared obsolete. It was left up to May to issue support for NATO in her opening remarks at their news conference, and to encourage Trump's backing. “On defense and security cooperation, we are united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense,” she said.
"Today we’ve reaffirmed our unshakeable commitment to this alliance – Mr. President I think you confirmed that you are 100 percent behind NATO."