United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election and said they would likely meet soon, as relations between the two countries grow more strained over allegations of Russian meddling in the US electoral system.
Mr Trump’s overture to Mr Putin was criticised by senators in his own Republican party, who called Sunday’s election a sham. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there was a “lack of credibility in tallying the result”.
When asked if Russia’s election was free and fair, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders responded: “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate.”
Mr Putin won a landslide victory to extend his rule over the world’s largest country for six more years, at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.
“I congratulated him on the victory, the electoral victory,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House, while meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distant future so we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race.”
The president added: “We will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”
The White House later said there were no specific plans for a meeting.
Last week, the Trump administration hardened its stance on Russia by accusing Moscow of hacking into America’s energy grid. It approved the first sanctions on Russian entities and citizens for alleged meddling in the 2016 US election. Russia denies any interference.
The US also joined Britain, France and Germany in demanding that Russia explain a military-grade nerve toxin attack in England on a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal.
Trump, who vowed to improve relations with Russia on taking office 14 months ago, is under pressure from Congress to take a tougher stance on Putin, his inner circle and scores of Russian oligarchs.
Trump has not been highly critical of Russia in public, maintaining there was no collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russians.
Republican US Senator John McCain chastised Mr Trump for the congratulatory call.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” Mr McCain said.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said there had been no real choice in Russia’s presidential election and complained it had been marked by unfair pressure on critical voices.
The US State Department endorsed the OSCE’s preliminary findings, said spokeswoman Heather Nauert, and called Mr Trump’s call to Mr Putin “protocol”.
The Kremlin said Tuesday’s conversation had been broadly constructive and focused on overcoming problems in relations.
“The leaders spoke in favour of developing practical cooperation in different spheres, including on questions of how to ensure strategic stability and fight international terrorism,” the Kremlin said.