President Barack Obama prodded Donald Trump on Thursday to take a tougher approach toward Russia, urging the president-elect to "stand up" to Moscow when it violates global norms. The Kremlin accused Obama of trying to lock in bad relations before Trump takes office.
In Europe for his last time as president, Obama said he doesn't expect Trump to mirror his own strategy on Russia, and hopes his successor will work constructively with the superpower where appropriate. Yet he insisted the U.S. mustn't gloss over deep disagreements over Syria, Ukraine and basic democratic values.
"My hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach," Obama said, using a German term for a foreign policy driven by expediency. He said he hopes the businessman won't cut deals with Russia if it hurts other countries or "just do whatever is convenient at the time."
Obama's remarks in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked his most explicit attempt since the election to influence the policies Trump will pursue as president. Obama has privately urged Trump not to obliterate the efforts of the last eight years, but in public he has tried to avoid boxing in his successor.
Yet Trump's unexpected victory has put Obama in the unwelcome position of having to reassure foreign leaders that Trump won't follow through on alarming positions he staked out in his campaign, such as the notion the U.S. might not defend its NATO allies. NATO members and other European countries are worried that under Trump, the U.S. will stop trying to police Russia's behavior the way it has under Obama.
Most concerning to U.S. allies are Trump's effusive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the first world leaders he spoke to after winning the election. The Kremlin has said Putin and Trump agreed in that call to try to fully normalize U.S.-Russia relations, an alarming prospect for Russia's neighbors who fear the U.S. will let sanctions on Moscow lapse and acquiesce to Russia's behavior in Ukraine and Syria.
Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told Russian news agencies that Obama's administration was "doing everything it can to drive bilateral ties into such a deadlock that would make it difficult for a new team to get them out from, if it wishes to do so."
The White House declined to comment on that accusation.
Ushakov also said that Trump's call with Putin had revealed a "shared desire" to fight terrorism and collaborate on Syria. Obama's administration accuses Russia of prolonging Syria's civil war by intervening militarily to prop up President Bashar Assad.
Germany's Merkel, for her part, said she was approaching the incoming Trump administration with "an open mind" and was encouraged that the presidential process in the U.S. was "working smoothly" so far.
Obama's closest partner on the world stage, Merkel has been instrumental in Obama's efforts to coordinate U.S. and European approaches toward Russia, as well as other conflicts including the Syria crisis and the fight against the Islamic State group. Thursday's meeting was the last for Obama — who leaves office in January — and Merkel, who declined to say whether she plans to run for re-election.
As for the limit on U.S. presidents serving two terms, Merkel said simply, "It's a tough rule: Eight years and that's it."
Obama, speaking broadly about his own successor, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about Trump. He said that "solemn responsibilities" and "extraordinary demands" of the presidency tend to demand a level of seriousness, implying Trump might rein in some of the bellicose statements of the campaign trail.
"If you're not serious about the job, then you probably won't be there very long because it will expose problems," Obama said.
With Obama leaving office Jan. 20, the U.S. is stepping up efforts to deter Russia from using cyberattacks to meddle in the United States.
The Obama administration has been incensed by Russia's suspected hacking of U.S. political groups. Obama said he'd told Putin that "there has been very clear proof that they have engaged in cyberattacks."
A senior U.S. official said the administration had taken the notable step of complaining to Russia through a secure, round-the-clock "hotline" originally setup to avert a nuclear war. The U.S. relayed its complaint on Oct. 31 — a week before Election Day — said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss private diplomatic conversations.
"The Russians have a very active and aggressive capability to conduct information operations," James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told Congress on Thursday. "I expect that would continue."