MOSCOW – Donald Trump has refused to condemn Russia's military takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, saying if elected he would consider recognizing it as Russian territory, in the latest of a series of statements that have raised eyebrows about the Republican candidate's intentions toward the Kremlin.
"We'll be looking at that. Yeah, we'll be looking," Trump told reporters on Wednesday.
Accepting Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea would be a radical departure from U.S. policy. The United States and the European Union worked together to punish Russia by imposing economic sanctions and have shown no willingness to lift them. Even Belarus, Russia's closest ally and neighbor, did not recognize the annexation.
While Trump has sided with Putin on a wide range of issues, Putin has not openly backed the Republican nominee and the Kremlin denies interfering in the U.S. electoral process. Hillary Clinton's campaign claimed that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers as part of an effort to undermine her candidacy.
Although the Russians "will keep their mouths tightly zipped until Election Day," they clearly prefer Trump, said Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and former diplomat who spent six years at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
"They don't know exactly what to expect from Donald Trump, but they think two things about him: One, that he has a number of advisers who they see as being relatively open-minded if not sympathetic about Russia. And second, they see him as a deal maker," Merry said.
"When they look at Hillary Clinton they see somebody they really do not like."
On the personal level, Clinton is not the type of leader that Putin likes to deal with, said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of "All the Kremlin's Men."
"We cannot imagine them sitting in the pub, drinking beer, or vodka, or whiskey or whatever," he said of Clinton and Putin. "We cannot even imagine them going to the theater or cinema together: They have so little in common, they have no topics to chat about, and that's the very important thing for Putin."
"For him, it's very important to be respected and to be treated as a world leader, and to have his own agenda."
Here is a look at some of the issues where the views of Putin and Trump coincide:
NATO AND THE BALTICS
NATO's eastward expansion has long been a sore spot for Putin, who has accused the Western military alliance and the United States of violating what he said were informal agreements not to encroach upon Russia's borders.
Russia's support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea spooked Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. In 2014, NATO created a rapid-reaction force to protect its most vulnerable members against a confrontation with Russia. Putin has decried the build-up.
In sharp contrast to the assurances made by Clinton and the current U.S. administration, Trump has suggested that under his leadership the United States might abandon its NATO military commitments. In an interview with The New York Times last week, Trump said he would decide whether to protect the Baltic states against Russian aggression based on whether those countries "have fulfilled their obligations to us."
Putin is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been accused of targeting civilians in Syria's ongoing civil war. Western nations including the United States insist that as part of a political transition Assad should step aside. The future of the Syrian president has been a major stumbling block in Syria talks between Moscow and Washington, with Russia insisting that Assad can only be removed through an election.
Trump, however, has expressed his opposition to regime change in Syria and said the U.S. and Russia should focus on working together to destroy the Islamic State group.
On the morning after Britain voted last month to leave the European Union, Putin sought to sound neutral, warning of the "traumatic effect" of the vote. Russia watchers, however, believe that Moscow wants Britain, one of its severest critics in Europe, to leave the EU and relishes any development that could weaken the 28-nation bloc.
Trump, however, saluted the British vote, saying "they took back their country, it's a great thing."
"Crooked Hillary Clinton is unfit to serve as president of the U.S.," Trump tweeted this month. "Her temperament is weak and her opponents are strong."
Just like Trump, Putin has been keen to dismiss Clinton as weak because she is a woman. Responding to Clinton's remarks comparing his actions in Ukraine to those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Putin said in an interview with the RT channel in December: "It's better not to argue with women."
"Mrs. Clinton wasn't known for an elegant turn of phrase before," Putin said. "When people cross certain boundaries, the bounds of propriety, it speaks of their weakness, not their strength. But weakness is not a bad quality for a woman."
Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Francesca Ebel contributed to this report.