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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's parliament applauded on learning that Donald Trump had won the U.S. election. But prospects for better relations with Washington have suffered setbacks since then and the resignation of Trump's national security adviser is the biggest blow yet.
The Kremlin still believes a rapprochement is feasible, even if it might take longer than initially thought. But the clock is ticking: Vladimir Putin is expected to run for another presidential term next year, and an easing in Western sanctions could speed Russia's recovery from a recession and safeguard his national popularity.
For now, Russia plans to keep working with the Trump administration towards a rapprochement, looking to improve the atmosphere. With relations having sunk to a post-Cold War nadir under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama as a result of Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea, they could hardly get worse.
A first meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, expected in Germany later this week, will give the Kremlin a chance to grasp what Washington is now thinking and where this may lead.
The resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was seen in Moscow as a leading advocate of warmer ties with Russia, has underscored for the Kremlin the difficulties of reaching a settlement with Washington and drove home the urgent need to find new areas of common interest.
Flynn, who shared dinner with Putin in 2015 and favoured Washington uniting with Russia against Islamic State militants, quit on Monday after revelations he had improperly discussed the issue of U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to Washington before Trump took office.
A U.S. official said Flynn indicated to the envoy that the sanctions "would not necessarily carry over to an administration seeking to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia".
"Flynn, unlike many other high-ranking Americans, was at least open to dialogue," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the upper house of parliament's foreign affairs committee.
"Either Trump has not gained the requisite independence and is being gradually (and not unsuccessfully) backed into a corner, or Russophobia has already infected the new administration."
Other Russian politicians suggested Flynn had been forced to resign to harm relations with Moscow. But the Kremlin, anxious not to feed fears of Russian media manipulation to influence U.S. politics, said only that it was an internal U.S. matter.
"NOBODY TO TALK TO"
Trump came to power talking of wanting cooperative U.S.-Russian relations, for example to take joint action against Islamic State militants. So far, there's been scant improvement.
Trump spoke by phone to Putin on Jan. 28, but Reuters learnt that the call had not gone smoothly: Trump used it to denounce a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States.
The Kremlin is also struggling to set up a meeting.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said on Tuesday he could not say when or where the Russian leader would meet Trump and that it was "premature" to even talk about what direction U.S.-Russian relations might take.
A series of U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet nominees did not go the Kremlin's way either, with the incoming defence secretary and secretary of state both raising concerns about the dangers of Russia as an unpredictable military player.
Russian officials are frustrated too that Trump has not yet filled key senior staff positions at the State Department, leaving Russian diplomats feeling they have nobody to work with.
"To have cooperation, you need someone to promote it from the other end," Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, testily told a news briefing last week.
Moscow seems to have been taken aback by the strength of Congressional opposition to Trump overseeing a rapprochement with Russia, a factor that would make it hard for him to ease sanctions even if he wanted to.
In a further reverse for the Kremlin, senior U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would give Congress the right to review any move to relax sanctions on Russia.
Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, told state television last week Moscow was aware of how difficult the domestic U.S. scene was becoming for Russia.
"Does the lack of political consensus inside the U.S. create problems for our bilateral relations?" Kislyak asked rhetorically. "That is an objective reality."
"A BLACK DAY FOR KREMLIN DIPLOMACY"
There were muted expectations in Moscow that Trump might move fast to reverse Obama's expulsion in December of 35 suspected Russian spies over allegations of Russian-backed cyber attacks on U.S. election campaign groups to help Trump win.
Obama shut down two Russian compounds at the same time that he said were used by Russian personnel for "intelligence-related purposes". Back then, Trump praised Putin for refraining from retaliation, calling him "very smart". But Trump has given no indication since that he will roll back any of the measures.
One of the biggest setbacks for Moscow followed a flare-up in fighting in eastern Ukraine where government forces are facing off against pro-Russian separatist forces.
Before the escalation in January, which both sides blame on each other, the Trump administration gave the impression it was open to looking at reviewing sanctions on Russia.
Afterwards, Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, blamed Russia for the fighting and said Ukraine-related sanctions would not be lifted until Moscow returned Crimea to Ukraine, something Russia says it will never do.
Flynn's resignation may hurt more, though.
"Flynn was the main lobbyist for the 'big deal with Putin' project," said Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin.
"There was nobody in Trump's entourage who so persistently lobbied to cancel the sanctions as Flynn. Today is a black day for Kremlin diplomacy and for Putin personally."
(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning and Alessandra Prentice in Moscow; editing by Mark Heinrich)