MOSCOW— -- The Kremlin has declined to respond to Donald Trump’s latest compliments of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it will wait and see how the Republican candidate behaves in office if he wins.
During a televised forum Wednesday night, Trump praised Putin again and said he believed him to be a better leader than President Obama.
“The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump said during a Q&A with an NBC moderator. "Now, it’s a very different system, a system I happen not to like. But certainly in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Asked today about Trump’s remarks, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov largely declined to comment, saying Russia will judge both U.S. presidential candidates not on statements made in their campaigns but on what they would say after installed in the White House.
“The main thing is what will the newly elected U.S. president say,” Peskov told reporters at a briefing. “We hope that with the completion of the election campaigns we will see such political will towards straightening up good relations between the states.”
Trump’s outreach to Putin has drawn controversy in the United States, at a time when a resurgent Russia has been challenging U.S. hegemony around the world, waging a covert war in eastern Ukraine and stymieing U.S. policy in Syria.
Both Republican and Democratic foreign policy elders have expressed shock at Trump’s praise of Putin even as U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe Moscow is using cyberattacks to undermine America’s electoral system, after a recent spate of Russian-linked hackings targeting Democratic Party organizations and elections infrastructure.
Putin himself has sporadically praised Trump, in December calling him “colorful” and “without doubt very talented,” prompting the Republican presidential nominee to up his own expressions of esteem for the Russian leader. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has accused him of working to please the Kremlin.
During Wednesday’s forum, NBC’s Matt Lauer challenged Trump over his admiration for Putin.
“He’s the guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports [President Bashar al-]Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world and, according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of DNC computers,” Lauer said to Trump, asking him: “Do you want to be complimented by a former KGB officer?”
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump told Lauer. “Do you want me to start naming some of the things President Obama does?”
Recently, Putin has been less complimentary of Trump, criticizing both him and Clinton for using what he-called “shock tactics” in the campaign.
But in Russia there is little doubt which candidate the Kremlin believes closer to its line of thinking. A peculiar, miniature version of the U.S. campaign has appeared recently on Moscow’s streets, with pro-Kremlin state-funded activist groups demonstrating to praise Trump and aggressively criticizing Clinton, who they paint as a warmonger and a liar.
Trump statements questioning the need to bolster NATO against Russia or suggesting the United States should recognize Russia’s annexation Crimea both coincide with key strategic goals of the Kremlin.
More than backing Trump, Russia analysts and U.S. intelligence officials have warned they believe Russia may be seeking to sow uncertainty and undermine confidence in America’s democratic process by trying to interfere in the elections.
The FBI has said it believes hackers linked to Russian intelligence services were behind recent breaches into the Democratic National Committee, as well as the theft and subsequent leaking of thousands of emails belonging to Clinton. FBI officials have also warned Russia may have been behind recent attempts to breach electoral registers in two states.
The Clinton campaign has argued Trump’s friendly posture toward Russia represents a possible national security threat.
"For Trump to both encourage that and to praise Putin despite what appears to be a deliberate effort to try to affect the election I think raises national security issues," Clinton told Fox News in August.
Trump’s campaign has strongly denied he has any links to the Kremlin or is under its influence. At Wednesday’s forum, Trump said his friendly words to Putin were simply part of negotiation.
““Look, it’s not going to get him anywhere,” Trump told Lauer. “I’m a negotiator. It’s not going to have any impact.”