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Russian leaders had 'contacts' with Trump campaign, minister tells press

Russia's deputy foreign minister made the shocking statement Thursday in an interview with an independent Russian news agency.

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Traditional Russian wooden dolls called Matreska depict US presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and US presidential candidate Donald Trump displayed in a shop in Moscow, Russia on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

Pavel Golovkin/ AP

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Less than two days after Americans voted in one of the most contentious presidential races in recent memory, a Russian official said Thursday that his government had been in touch with members of US President-elect Donald Trump's staff during the campaign.

The report could send political shockwaves not only across the United States but also across the world, especially in Europe, where leaders have called upon Mr. Trump to clarify whether the United States will continue to back its NATO allies and whether American policies toward Russia will shift under his administration. Those questions are regarded as highly consequential for the European continent, racked by populist movements of their own and an influx of migrants and refugees from war-torn countries.

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The precise manner and content of the Russian government's communications with the Trump campaign remain unclear, as the official did not provide details, Reuters reported.

"There were contacts," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax, a privately owned news agency based in Moscow.

The surprising claim comes after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton – whom Mr. Trump defeated in a sweep unexpected by many pollsters – accused Trump of being a "puppet" dangling under the manipulative hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it comes after the US government formally accused the Kremlin of meddling in the election by hacking into Democratic party leaders' email accounts.

Mr. Putin has denied both sets of allegations, assuring the American public last month that he has "no intention" of interfering in their democratic process. Such assurances, however, have failed to quell the concerns of European leaders, as The Christian Science Monitor's Elizabeth Pond wrote Wednesday:

Already, the Europeans are shifting down from chronic crisis management to acute damage control. They will try to salvage as much as possible of the transatlantic relationship that has been the bedrock of the West in preserving liberal values and shaping open international institutions in the post-World War II world. In an era when democracies feel especially besieged by a rising, assertive China and a declining, and therefore defiant Russia, they will seek to stabilize a Europe in flux.

At a time when centrist parties have shrunk across the continent, the Europeans will strive to minimize the impetus that Trump’s nativist triumph gives to Europe’s own jubilant populist parties. And they will try, somehow, to regain the trust of all the losers in their own domestic constituencies who feel excluded from the general prosperity in the technological disruption and influx of Middle Eastern, Asian, and African refugees, whom they blame for stealing jobs from them.

While leaders in Europe mourn Clinton's loss, the Russian parliament applauded Wednesday at the news that Trump had won, and Putin told foreign ambassadors that he is ready to fully restore ties with American leaders.

Mr. Ryabkov, the Russian minister, said his country does not have any particular expectations of the new American administration, though he hopes to continue the conversations already underway.

"These working moments and follow-up on this or that matter will depend on the situation and the questions which face us," Ryabkov told Interfax. "But we will of course continue this work after the elections."

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Material from Reuters was included in this report.