MOSCOW ― While Americans are wondering if U.S. President Donald Trump’s team is too closely tied to Russia, Russians themselves are unconcerned with these connections. Instead, politicians, media and ordinary people express an anxious frustration rooted in the impact of the unending controversy rather than the allegations themselves. The worry is that the U.S. president has lost interest in building a rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the bilateral relationship will take a similar downward turn not unlike that under former U.S President Barack Obama if things continue down this path.
New revelations about previously undisclosed contacts between Russia and Trump’s campaign put the relationship back in the spotlight late last week. According to the reports, it was not just ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who was in communication with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but also current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ― then a senator on the Armed Services Committee ― Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a member of his cabinet, and two Trump campaign aides. And now, Trump himself seems to have also crossed paths with the ambassador.
“Could this pause foreshadow a destructive dynamic between the two nations, or are the leaders just playing it safe to avoid being tied too closely together?”
If the Trump-Russia probe continues to heat up, the president will lose a lot of credibility in the eyes of the general public. Americans are growing tired of hearing about scandals involving their president and Russia, especially when the administration repeatedly denies there was contact between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. But the firestorm President Trump faces has cast a shadow beyond his White House. In Russia, the Trump tone is increasingly cool as well.
What began as a story of “bromance” complete with inauguration parties has slowly evolved into something less charming. The familiar praises between Putin and Trump that once dominated news cycles have slowly died down, as the two leaders seem to be seeking to put more distance between one another. Could this pause foreshadow a destructive dynamic between the two nations, or are the leaders just playing it safe to avoid being tied too closely together?
It’s still early to say, but if the reactions of politicians, media broadcasts and regular people on the streets of the Russian capital are any indication, we may be in for troubled times after this honeymoon.
Russian Politicians Keep Their Distance
As revelations trickled out yet again about ties between Russian officials and the Trump team, Moscow’s response was pointed yet measured. In blunt remarks to CNN, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued a strong rebuke to claims that the Russian ambassador was acting as a spy: “stop spreading lies and false news.” Other Russian officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, characterized the latest set of reports as “fake news” and a “witch hunt” not unlike that which was seen during the McCarthyism era.
Though they borrowed words from Trump’s own vocabulary when blaming the controversy in the U.S. on “anti-Russian hysteria,” Russians stopped short of defending the American president, keeping still a gap between the two countries that could either indicate caution or a shift to a more negative perception of Donald Trump, even one reveling in the chaos he has created. In fact, the idea of the disorientation of Trump’s America as beneficial to Putin has also not been lost on Russians even as Russia-related investigations take place there.
“Russians stopped short of defending the American president, which could either indicate caution or a shift to a more negative perception of Donald Trump, even one reveling in the chaos he has created.”
The current and most serious chill between the Kremlin and Trump seems to have come when the White House indicated that it expected Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. The move, which appeared contrary to Trump’s stated intention to improve relations, sparked a harsher response from Kremlin spokesman Peskov, who said discussing the issue was out of the question. Prominent Russian politicians like Leonid Slutsky, the leader of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, and heads of different political parties represented in parliament, started to reshape the narrative about Trump, saying that now Russia faces a new stage in its relationship with the U.S. and that the current U.S. administration would probably be worse for Russia than the one under Obama.
Russian Media Adopts Cooler, More Critical Tone
This new phase in the relationship soon became evident in state and independent Russian media as well. During recent weeks, the popularity of Trump ― and the favorable tone used to cover him ― started to decline on Russian state TV channels such as the Channel 1, Rossiya 1 and NTV. According to research by the Russian independent online media outlet RBC, by the end of February these channels reported about the president much less and in a more skeptical way than in the beginning of the month.
Print and online media also started expressing doubts about the positive future of the U.S.-Russian relationship in coverage. The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, for example, published a piece about Trump and Putin with the title “Trump sang the swan song to Russia: it is time to stop the romance,” and BBC Russia released an article titled “How Trump and Russia fell out of love.” English Kremlin-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik news also threw cold water on the bromance.
Russians Reassess Trump Effect
The idea that it was Trump and not Putin’s moves responsible for the frosty relations between their two countries is shared not just in comments from politicians and media pundits here but by ordinary Russians as well.
“Trump started talking about Russia in a very different way,” Gleb Mishin, a 28-year-old doctoral student from Moscow said of the recent change in narrative between the two leaders. “Before his election, he was not sure about possible relations with Putin and was mentioning both positive and negative scenarios for it. But after Trump won, according to him, he picked up all the demands for Russia, which the previous U.S. President Barack Obama was expressing.”
“'Trump started to talk about giving Crimea back to Ukraine, and Putin is not going to put up with such ideas.'”
According to Nikolay Borovikov, a 32-year-old taxi driver from Moscow, any positive intention from Russia towards the U.S. is now also over because of moves on the American side.
“Trump started to talk about giving Crimea back to Ukraine, and Putin is not going to put up with such ideas,” he said, referring to comments made by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer. “And while Western leaders are annoying him that way, they are not really offering him anything valuable in return,” Borovikov continued. “What can the West give to Russia? A lifting of sanctions?” But, according to him, Russians don’t care about sanctions. He said it’s better for them to be in opposition with the West, because it keeps Russia on the defensive and tuned in to possible attacks.
Real And Long-Term Or Temporary And Tactical?
However, while the majority of people in Russian society see the chill in the Putin-Trump relationship as real and here to stay, there are some minority voices in Russian media and among experts who profess a more positive view of the bilateral situation.
Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, for example, stated in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center that the temperature change between Russia and the U.S. is just a tactical step that will allow Trump to avoid being accused of being biased towards Russia while still ultimately being able to establish a more favorable relationship with it. Similar ideas were expressed by Vladimir Sotnikov, the director of the Russia-East-West Strategic Research Center, an independent think tank based in Moscow, but he also pointed out the important role of the Syrian conflict. The war, which hits its six-year mark this month, has been one area where Trump seeks to differ from his predecessor in cooperating with Russia.
“Carnegie Moscow Center's Alexander Baunov says the temperature change is a tactical step that will allow Trump to avoid being accused of being biased towards Russia while still ultimately being able to establish a more favorable relationship with it.”
“Of course, Trump’s discourse about Russia is influenced by many factors, but as the negotiations about [the] conflict in Syria are [on]going, we see that he is not denying the leading role of Russia in that region,” he said in reference to Trump’s suggested support of Russia’s leadership in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria. “To let Russia deal with Iran, Turkey and Syria will be beneficial for [the] U.S., because it doesn’t want to invest in any conflict in [the] Middle East in a way it was doing for the last years.” In return for taking the lead, Russia could then ask for favors, like the lifting of Russian sanctions, Sotnikov added.
But the future of relations between these two countries with regard to the conflict in Syria leaves this question a bit up in the air. On the one hand, it appears that recent news about Syrian forces recapturing the historic Palmyra from ISIS with direct help by Russian forces and indirect assistance from the U.S. proves that Putin is managing that conflict quite efficiently without too much involvement on the American end. On the other hand, Russia is also asking the U.S. to be more involved in the region, indicating that Trump’s administration may not be able to be as passive as it would have liked here.
Regardless of what happens in Syria and Ukraine, for some Russians like Evgeniy Peskin, 26, an IT specialist from Moscow, it’s too early to tell what the new tone in the U.S.-Russian relationship means just yet. Such dynamics will be easier to determine once Trump and Putin meet in person.
“I do believe that if they would like each other ― because both have an image of self-made powerful persons ― they would try to do their best to make the connection between countries better.”
For now, in Russia, the current shift in bilateral relations is for the most part being received in either a negative or neutral way. With the exception of some dismissive statements by Kremlin officials, the Trump-Russia scandal has been brushed off here even as it creates chaos in America. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that even independent Russian media have not begun to investigate whether Russian officials were trying to communicate with Trump’s team in any inappropriate way, and instead concentrate on reporting about the chill between the two camps.
Furthermore, none of the people I have been talking to on the streets of Moscow seemed to take this issue seriously or believe that any such communication took place.
“'Believe me, if the story about Russian intervention would not be enough, soon we will hear that the U.S. president was also meeting aliens.'”
“Americans hate Russia as they hated the USSR, and now, when we are [as] strong as [the] USSR was, they are trying to provoke us in any possible way,” said Maria Pylnova, a 30-year-old cosmetics shop assistant from Tver, a small city north of Moscow. According to her, this is the only explanation for current news from the U.S. about the Russian ambassador allegedly being a spy and meeting members of the new administration.
Another Russian offered a slightly different view, but still indicated that the possibility of Russian participation in the American drama was out of the question. Democratic politicians in the U.S., Michael Lemezov, a 23-year-old student from Moscow, said, would accuse Trump of anything to get rid of him though impeachment ― and it doesn’t matter what the reason would be.
“Believe me, if the story about Russian intervention would not be enough, soon we will hear that the U.S. president was also meeting aliens,” he added.
Such responses to possible Russian connections with Donald Trump remind me of the reaction to news about Russian hackers allegedly obtaining secret information from servers of the U.S. Democratic party not too long ago. Then media coverage of the issue here was sparse and both Russian officials and ordinary citizens were denying any possibility that Russians could actually have done this, which in fact turned out later to likely be the case.
Today’s situation could swing the same way. But even if Russian ties with Trump turn out to be true, Russians likely won’t care. After all, for most of them, Putin’s bromance with Trump is already on its deathbed, and with it, any chance for a genuine reset.