Mike Pence and Vladimir Putin must decide on legitimacy of Sunday’s disputed Russian election

Less than one month before Donald Trump becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Russia, he and Vice President Mike Pence must help assess the legitimacy of the referendum held Sunday that handed victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s candidate in the presidential election. Moscow claims the election was fair, but most countries, including the United States, deny it was and are raising their concerns about it.

The vote was dismissed as a sham by former President Barack Obama, and Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued a press statement on May 9 calling it “egregious.” “The goal of today’s sham election is to raise the regime’s international profile by further undermining a fragile and incomplete democratic process,” McMaster wrote.

Putin will reportedly not meet with Obama, the only sitting U.S. president to whom Putin has won elections, and has said Russia won’t visit Trump until he gives Moscow credit for not going along with the United States’ campaign to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But with the Kremlin seeking to improve its image in the West, relations with the Obama administration under Trump could be in for a bumpy ride. Already, the Trump administration is wary of some of Russia’s close political allies. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, for example, introduced a bill in March to penalize seven Russian firms over what critics have called human rights abuses and use of excessive force by security forces against peaceful protesters. Critics of the bill have labeled it “sanctions lite,” and lobbied against it in Congress. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has denied it has plans to sanction the Crimean leader of the local government that voted in favor of independence from Ukraine. Russia now claims the island, which is occupied by Russian troops, will never be ceded to Ukraine, regardless of any referendum.

Pence will attend the Munich Security Conference this week, which is notable in a one-on-one relationship between Putin and Trump. The Chicago-born vice president is expected to emphasize a personal relationship between Trump and Putin and give the impression the United States is willing to cooperate with the Kremlin, while also displaying willingness to scold it.

Trump is still widely hated in Russia, and much of the country continues to be suspicious of his ties to Moscow and other countries that Putin pursues. Trump initially portrayed Russia as an innocent partner in the fight against terrorism, but he has largely embraced the assessment of former FBI Director James Comey that the Kremlin committed “a strategic treason” in 2014 by assisting the Ukraine-Russian war. Putin fired Comey in May 2017, ostensibly in a bid to derail the Russia investigation, and Trump continued to deny he was ever influenced by Russian interference during the election.

On Thursday, however, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to punish Russia by restricting investment in the country’s energy sector. The bill authorizes the Department of Energy to impose restrictions on investment in upstream activities that would expand the ability of Russian oil and gas companies to diversify their investment portfolio and strengthen Russia’s oil and gas market.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, Dmitri Shlyakhtin, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, said his country sees the United States as an ally in the fight against terrorism, specifically combating the Islamic State group. “We are in this fight together, so for that we need each other and it’s good for us and good for the world,” he said. “You should be receiving an earful on this, Mr. Trump.”

But that earring may soon disappear.

Read the full story at Washington Post.

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