Amid Kremlin Victories, Putin Fails to Persuade West on Russian Sanctions


MOSCOW — From Moscow to Washington to capitals in between, the past few days have showcased the way President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia nimbly exploits differences between the United States and its allies.

Yet recent events have also highlighted the downside to Mr. Putin’s geopolitical escapades and accentuated where he falls short on matters of vital importance to both himself, and ordinary Russians.

President Trump had barely finished catapulting a belligerent tweet and new sanctions at Turkey on Friday before Mr. Putin was working the phone with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was vintage Putin, showcasing his seizure of any opportunity to divide the West.

But at the same time, the Western sanctions he hoped to get lifted have only been tightened this past week, pushing the ruble down to its lowest levels in years.

At home, Mr. Putin’s standing with Russians is suffering as a result.

For all the strategic success Mr. Putin has had — including diminishing NATO and the European Union by bolstering populist governments in Europe as well as Middle East autocrats — he has failed to persuade or pressure the West to lift successive waves of American and European economic sanctions imposed on Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In fact, the State Department threatened last week to enact yet another round of such measures, just days after the United States Senate brandished its own.

The European Union, some of whose members had signaled in the past few years that they were ready to consider granting Moscow some relief, has held tough on sanctions, especially in the wake of the British government’s finding that Russia was responsible for an attempted assassination on British soil using a banned nerve agent.

Mr. Putin could certainly claim a tactical victory after his call to Turkey. Mr. Erdogan, whose country is a NATO member, soon crowed that Turkey’s growing economic and military relations with Russia “make us stronger,” while he fulminated against the “economic war” waged by Washington.

But the failure to make progress in freeing the Russian economy from the sanctions is a setback for Mr. Putin both domestically and globally.

In Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and some in the Kremlin thought they had a get-out-of-sanctions-free card. Despite the lack of concrete agreements, the first summit meeting between the two leaders, in Helsinki, Finland, last month, reinforced Russian expectations that the American president would fulfill his campaign promise to mend ties.

“Many hoped that the Helsinki summit would reset U.S.-Russia relations, and if not help lift the existing sanctions, then at least avoid further rounds,” Maria Snegovaya, a United States-based Russia analyst and columnist for the newspaper Vedomosti, wrote in an email.

Much to the Kremlin’s dismay, however, the Trump administration has developed into a kind of pushmi-pullyu of the diplomatic world, acting toward Russia something like the two-headed llama of Dr. Doolittle fame. One head, in the form of Mr. Trump, repeatedly promises improved ties with Moscow, while the other, representing senior officials in his own administration and bipartisan sentiment in Congress, growls about new sanctions and other chastisements.

In Moscow, the policy zigzags prompted both confusion and anger as the Kremlin floundered to respond.

“People are bewildered because they keep getting very mixed signals about the state of relations,” said Andrei V. Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group that advises the Kremlin.