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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference after a meeting with his Moldovan counterpart Igor Dodon at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 17, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Christian Lowe and Noah Barkin
MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will speak by telephone on Saturday, the Kremlin said, a first step towards what Trump has billed as a normalisation of relations after three years of tensions sparked by the conflict in Ukraine.
Trump will also have a telephone conversation the same day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and that call is expected to focus on Russia, a source in Berlin familiar with the matter said.
Trump has said in the past that, as part of the rapprochement he is seeking with Russia, he is prepared to review the sanctions that Washington imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.
That move is likely to face resistance from both influential figures in Washington and foreign leaders -- Merkel among them -- who argue sanctions should only be eased if Moscow complies with the West's conditions on Ukraine.
Trump is already under intense scrutiny at home from critics who say he was elected with help from Russian intelligence -- an allegation he denies -- and that he is too ready to cut deals with a country that many of his own officials say is a threat to U.S. security.
Trump and Putin last spoke in November, when Putin rang Trump to congratulate him on winning the presidential election.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian leader would use the call to congratulate Trump on taking office and to exchange views on the current state of U.S.-Russian ties.
Asked by reporters if Ukraine would come up, Peskov said: "This is the first telephone contact since President Trump took office, so one should hardly expect that this phone call will involve substantive discussions across the whole range of issues. We'll see, let's be patient."
He said he was unaware of any plans by the White House to lift Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia.
If Putin and Trump can establish a rapport, it could pave the way for deals on Ukraine and Syria, two sources of friction during the administration of Barack Obama.
Trump and Putin have never met and it was unclear how their very different personalities would gel. Trump is a flamboyant real estate deal-maker who often acts on gut instinct, while Putin is a former Soviet spy who calculates each step methodically.
Both have spoken about ending the enmity that has dragged U.S.-Russia relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with people? Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along, as an example, with Russia? I am all for it," Trump told a news conference in July last year.
Putin, at a news conference in December, said he would reciprocate. "Mr Trump .... said he believes it's right to normalise Russian-American ties and said it definitely won't be any worse, because it couldn't be worse. I agree with him. Together we'll think about how to improve things."
For the Russian leader, there is much to gain. Putin is expected to run for re-election next year, but is hampered by a sluggish economy. A softening or removal of sanctions would allow Western investment and credit to flow in, lifting growth and strengthening Putin's election prospects.
For Trump, a rapprochement with Russia carries political risks. Powerful Congressional figures say they will block any move to lift Ukraine-related sanctions.
That would displease some of Washington's European allies too. The source in Berlin familiar with plans for the Trump-Merkel call said it would be "unpleasant" if Trump were to lift sanctions against Russia, but added: "It doesn't mean that we go along." The European Union has its own set of sanctions against Russia that it imposed over Ukraine.
Trump is also vulnerable to allegations at home of being too cosy with Moscow.
U.S. intelligence agencies published a report this month saying Russia had mounted a campaign, including through hacking of Democratic Party emails, to influence the presidential election in Trump's favour. Both Trump and the Kremlin have denied that happened.
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt and Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Ralph Boulton)