The recent CIA revelations that allege Russia assisted U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in his election win and reports of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement with this interference are widely discussed in the United States, but they have so far created surprisingly little hype in Russia. In the past, when allegations of meddling first took shape, much of the Russian state-run media and public I encountered remained largely indifferent. News outlets and people on the street completely ignored or simply ridiculed the possibility that the Kremlin had intervened in American politics, and government officials demanded that the U.S. provide proof before making such lofty claims. New updates in the hacking scandal this week have done little to change this perception in Russia. But that apathetic attitude in light of the severity of the assessments is making some Americans even more anxious about the extent to which Putin may or may not have played a role in choosing their new leader.
In the U.S., there is a degree of division in judgments of the findings, with some exercising caution even amid recent reports indicating Putin’s personal involvement and President Obama’s vow to retaliate. But among the views I surveyed from Russian commentators, my Twitter feed and my close contacts in the country, few openly accepted the possibility that the CIA was correct in its assessment ― even those who openly oppose the Kremlin.
“Few [Russian commentators] openly accepted the possibility that the CIA was correct in its assessment.”
In pro-establishment circles, the initial euphoria from Trump’s victory that culminated in a champagne celebration in Russia’s state parliament has been replaced by a moderate optimism on the side of many pro-Kremlin commentators. The slight lowering of optimism among pro-government perspectives may have to do with Trump’s observed unpredictability, lack of balance and low tolerance of criticism. The Kremlin prefers to wait and see.
Yet Trump’s victory might have already influenced the Kremlin’s domestic policymaking. According to some Kremlin-associated sources quoted in Russian media, in the event of a Clinton victory the Kremlin had planned to move the upcoming Russian 2018 presidential elections to an earlier date as a result of a worsening economic situation, falling ratings of incumbent politicians and fear that the new Clinton administration would aim to “destabilize” Russia. However, Trump’s victory seemingly reassured the Kremlin that the new U.S. administration won’t interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs.
Trump, who was perceived as a Russia-friendly candidate throughout the presidential campaign in both the U.S. and Russia, is not viewed as a threat in the Kremlin in the same way that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was. Clinton herself acknowledged Moscow’s animosity towards her, saying Putin’s “personal beef” with her may have led his country to pursue the alleged hacking campaign. She also reportedly said the Russian president contributed to her election loss.
The Kremlin is thus hopeful that Trump’s promises to lift sanctions against Russia will aid parts of the Russian economy and allow for strengthening elite cohesion. Some Russian elites, who were previously hurt by the sanctions and became increasingly dissatisfied with Putin’s foreign policy, will once again have reason to rally around Putin.
Indeed, the excitement surrounding Trump is not new news and Russia has not made its preferences a secret. Since the beginning of the U.S. electoral cycle Russia’s pro-Kremlin media didn’t hide their pro-Trump sympathies, even as Russian broadcasting on the U.S. remained biased and aggressive in other areas. In the last several years Russian TV anchors, such as Vladimir Solovyov, Dmitry Kiselyov and Petr Tolstoy took the habit of discussing U.S. policies and establishment in a derogatory manner, and mocking and criticizing most of the policy decisions of the Obama administration. Some of the comments went completely overboard. In one of his weekly news shows following the announcement of the U.S. election results, host Dmitry Kiselyov said that, “Obama was throwing his arms about as if he was in the jungle” in his first meeting with Trump. But once the initial hype over Trump’s victory wore down a bit, the tone of the mainstream state-owned broadcasts has abruptly shifted to become much more peaceful and empathetic of America, at least Trump’s America.
“Some Russian elites, who were previously hurt by the sanctions and became increasingly dissatisfied with Putin’s foreign policy, will once again have reason to rally around Putin.”
In fact, the negativity remains pronounced only in coverage of the Democrats or the Obama administration. But when it comes to Trump’s new appointments or broader Russia-U.S.-related policy issues, the media tone has become much more neutral and somewhat sympathetic to the States. The Russian pro-Kremlin media largely describe recent Trump’s appointments, such as Michael Flynn as the national security adviser, and Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, as promising and allowing for possibilities of improvement in the U.S.-Russia relationship and sanctions lift. Both Flynn and Tillerson are painted as the people who can “negotiate and make deals.” In the latter case, Tillerson is described as one of very few Republicans with such good Russian connections that he “can only compare to Kissinger on the overall number of contacts in Russia.” Russian media referenced one of Tillerson’s speeches in which he stated that his approach to sanctions on Russia is “similar to that of his friend, Mr. [Igor] Sechin,” a Russian official and the chief executive of Russian oil company, Rosneft, with close connections to Vladimir Putin.
But there’s a limit to Russia’s newly expressed love for America. When it comes to the reports of Russia’s role in the hacking of the U.S. election, for instance, state-run Russian media outlets remain in denial that the allegations could be remotely true. Instead, media in the country often cover the CIA disclosures in a derogatory way, describing them as a “farce.” Some even go so far as to call the attacks the “ultimate [attempt from the Democrats to] justify their defeat before their supporters.”
But the explanations promoted by the most odious of Russian TV anchors, such as Vladimir Solovyov, is that the CIA investigations have to do with the internal fights and competition among U.S. secret services and their attempts to block Trump’s inauguration. The recent revelations regarding Putin’s own possible involvement in efforts to disrupt the U.S. presidential election similarly drew very little media and public attention, with the president’s own staff brushing one report as “laughable nonsense.”
A number of Russians get the majority of their news via Kremlin-controlled TV channels, but they tend to be as skeptical about Russia’s ability to influence the U.S. as the media they consume. While most pro-establishment circles are moderately optimistic about Trump’s presidency, the absolute majority of the Russians I’ve come into contact with both in person and online remain unaware of the U.S. political scandals, even those involving Russia.
“Even the Kremlin critics I know in Russia are still skeptical and generally uninterested in the recent CIA disclosures.”
Regular people on the streets of Russia have also reacted similarly. In conversations with Russian friends of many different political persuasions, their opinion ranged from “what is new here? we’ve heard it before”, to “[the] CIA lied so many times before and [is] untrustworthy.” Others are even more dismissive.
In a discussion over Facebook, Alexei Kovalev, former head of Russia’s InoSMI media platform, which aggregates and translates Western media for Russian audiences, says that the CIA revelations are untrustworthy, “because [the] CIA [is a group of] professional and systematic liars, who no one trusts anymore. There is no evidence to support their claims. It is impossible to seriously discuss [the Washington Post article[s] that comes from “one anonymous source from the [CIA’s] security services.”
This dismissive approach to the issue is also partly explained by the Russian opposition tendency to view every Putin action as a failure, in addition to the fact that despite their disapproval of the Kremlin, many people that I talked to among Russia’s opposition still supported Trump over Hillary for his more favorable rhetoric in reference to Russia. Yet even the Kremlin critics I know in Russia are still skeptical and generally uninterested in the recent CIA disclosures.
The sweeping support for Trump seems to give the Russian government a lot of reason to want the election to swing in favor of the current president-elect. And given Russia’s (and Vladimir Putin’s) longing for the lost great power status, one would expect the Russian leadership and the public to jump at the opportunity to take credit for its alleged ability to swing the elections in the United States.
So why did the Russian authorities choose to let this opportunity pass? Several explanations come to mind. Anything from the desire to maintain Russia-U.S. relations, to the continued support of a future Trump presidency could explain the prolonged secrecy. As it happened in eastern Ukraine, denying the Russian involvement in the conflict and hiding its ultimate goals allows the Kremlin to effectively exercise the ability to cause a stronger adversary (the United States) to voluntarily choose the actions most advantageous to Russian objectives by shaping the U.S perceptions of the situation ― a strategy the Russian government could likely be employing in the case of the U.S. election as well.
“Many people among Russia’s opposition still supported Trump over Hillary for his more favorable rhetoric in reference to Russia.”
Still, even with all of the possible reasons for Russian government involvement in America’s election process, a large part of Russian society remain consumed by the country’s domestic news, such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s recent announcement to take part in the upcoming presidential elections, instead. And many Russians remain largely unaware of international developments like that of the U.S. election. So regardless of if the allegations against Putin and the Russian state prove true, many Russians won’t be all that concerned. Instead, they will continue to focus on the issues that they believe impact them the most ― local Russian politics and their own impending presidential election.