To many Russians, Donald Trump is a victim. That's a problem for the Kremlin
Vladimir Putin finds himself robbed of a tried-and-true scapegoat for his country's ills – which U.S. sanctions may soon make worse, Mark MacKinnon writes
To flip between Russian news channels these days is to move between worlds.
Allegations that Moscow colluded with U.S. President Donald Trump during his 2016 run for office dominate the headlines on CNN and BBC. Each day, it seems, come new revelations about campaign contacts between members of Mr. Trump's inner circle and a curious collection of Russian nationals, some of whom appear to have Kremlin ties.
But in Russia itself, the collusion allegations are secondary news, if they make the bulletins at all. The main Sunday-evening newscast on state-run television this week led with a report about a question-and-answer session that President Vladimir Putin held with Russian youth; the debate over how many times Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin met while attending the recent G20 summit in Germany was the seventh item, and followed a story about celebrities who attended a wedding in the southern city of Krasnodar.
Although Russia is central to the multipronged investigation into the 2016 election, there is a sense that the drama is a politicized one scripted entirely in Washington, and in which Moscow is being wrongly cast in the part of an almost silent bogeyman. Even many opponents of the Kremlin say that the U.S. media is making Mr. Putin and his security services out to be far more powerful than they really are. "I don't think Trump won because of the Kremlin," says Ilya Yashin, a prominent figure in the occasional street protests here against Mr. Putin. "There was Russian influence, but Trump won because he ran a better campaign."
In his Sunday-evening broadcast, anchor Igor Kozhevin referred to the "anti-Russian fire" in the U.S., where, he said, anyone with a Russian name can be portrayed as a member of Russia's secret services. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov played off such sentiments when he teased an interviewer on NBC last week with the possibility that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump may have had even more meetings at the G20 than the public knows about. "Maybe," he said, "they went to the bathroom together."
Many Russians also shrug at the broader idea that one country may have meddled in the elections of another. Allegations that U.S. diplomats interfered, or backed one candidate over another, are part of almost every recent election campaign in both Russia and neighbouring Ukraine. "Americans seem to think their democracy is ideal, even sacred, and now the sanctity of America has been profaned by something that may or may not have happened," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who worked on Mr. Putin's own presidential election campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
Mr. Pavlovsky, who has since come to oppose the Kremlin's authoritarianism, has been accused of working to tilt the 2004 Ukrainian elections toward a pro-Moscow candidate. He says Russia and the U.S. were equally active meddlers.
Foreign-policy experts here believe that the Kremlin may indeed have been behind the hacking and leaking of Democratic National Committee e-mails, as U.S. intelligence services contend. But they say that that effort was intended more to embarrass and discredit Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee whom the Kremlin believed would win the election regardless. They never expected their handiwork to result in a President Trump.
Other allegations of Russian interference are regarded as far-fetched. The furor over which members of the Trump campaign met with outgoing Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is greeted with an eye roll ("Aren't ambassadors supposed to meet with people?" is a repeated phrase.) And talk that lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was representing the Kremlin when she met with Donald Trump Jr. and the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, gets a yawn.
Sanctions darken the horizon
But there are, nonetheless, serious concerns in Moscow political circles about the growing pressure that the scandal that has come to be known as "Russiagate" is putting on Mr. Trump and his administration. While Russia was initially enthusiastic about possible co-operation with the new President – Mr. Trump's election win was famously greeted with applause in Russia's parliament – there is now growing skepticism that the goodwill between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin will result in better relations.
"Vladimir Putin is very positive toward Donald Trump because he promised to improve the relationship and he said positive things about Putin himself," says Sergei Markov, a hawkish political strategist who occasionally advises the Kremlin. But Mr. Markov says that Russiagate is proof that the U.S. establishment will not allow Mr. Trump to implement his stated plan to improve ties with Russia. "He is not able to act. I think Vladimir Putin believes Donald Trump is not really the President of the United States." At least not in the sense that Mr. Putin, as President of Russia, is the unquestioned authority here.
Hope is fading in Moscow that Mr. Trump will be able to lift the sanctions that the U.S. imposed (along with Canada and the European Union) over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its ongoing support for separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. Seeking to head off any sanctions relief that Mr. Trump may have been planning to offer Russia, the U.S. House and Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would require congressional approval for the President to lift sanctions at any point, while also introducing new sanctions targeting companies that co-operate with Russia's energy industry. On Friday, the White House announced Mr. Trump will sign the legislation.
Earlier Friday, Russia demanded a reduction in the number of U.S. diplomats stationed in the country to 455, the same number of Russian diplomats currently stationed in the U.S. (The number of American diplomats currently in Russia is not publicly known.) Russia said that it would also restrict access to the U.S. embassy dacha outside Moscow, as well as to a building used by the embassy as a storage facility.
The Kremlin is anxious to see the return of two of its own diplomatic compounds – one a 45-acre estate on the eastern shore of Maryland, the other a 14-acre property on Long Island – that were seized in December by Mr. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, as retaliation for the suspected election interference; 35 Russian diplomats were also expelled.
Russia did not retaliate at the time, as the Kremlin hoped relations would improve once Mr. Trump took office. Friday's move is a sign that Moscow is beginning to lose patience.
Western sanctions so far have primarily targeted the assets of Mr. Putin's inner circle, as well as the country's energy, finance and defence sectors. But Russia retaliated in 2014 with its own blanket ban on the import of Western agricultural goods, a measure that hit Russian grocery shelves hard. The value of the ruble also fell precipitously, and today the currency is worth just 55 per cent of its presanctions value.
Although Russia's economy has started to show modest growth again after two years of painful contraction, the prospect of a long-term sanctions war – combined with persistently low oil prices – continues to darken the country's economic horizon. An end to the economic conflict would undoubtedly be welcome, especially with Mr. Putin facing re-election next year.
But six months into Mr. Trump's term, U.S. policy remains that Russia, if it wants to see any sanctions lifted, must end its support for separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine – support that Moscow denies providing. Other sanctions are connected to the annexation of Crimea, a move neither Mr. Putin nor any eventual successor is likely to undo. "Our bilateral relations are frozen," says Valery Garbuzov, director of the state-funded Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. "This is not war, but this is certainly not peace."
Although the Trump administration appeared to align itself with Kremlin policy in Syria last week when it announced that it was ending U.S. support for rebels opposed to the regime of Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad, many here believe the primary American interest was to absolve itself of the task of trying to resolve the six-year-old civil war.
A popularity conundrum
Some analysts say that the Kremlin doesn't yet know what to make of Mr. Trump, particularly given his habit of saying one thing and then promptly reversing himself – often via a bluntly worded tweet.
After a two-hour meeting at the G20 summit, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump appeared to have reached an agreement to create what Mr. Trump called "an impenetrable Cyber Security unit" in a July 9 posting on his Twitter account. Following a storm of domestic criticism about his willingness to co-operate on cybersecurity with the country alleged to have hacked a U.S. election, Mr. Trump upended the deal in yet another tweet. "The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't …," he wrote, just 13 hours after he had announced the pact.
It's not the way that Moscow is used to handling relations with its nuclear rival. "Official Russian behaviour since Trump came to power is extremely cautious," says Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent foreign-policy commentator. "It seems the Russian leadership is starting to understand that the United States is much more unpredictable than anyone imagined it could be."
Still, Mr. Trump remains uncommonly popular among ordinary Russians. A June poll by Pew Global Research found that only Russians and Israelis – among 37 countries where research was conducted – had "confidence in the U.S. President to do the right thing regarding world affairs." Although Israelis had the highest level of confidence in Mr. Trump, at 56 per cent, that was only seven points higher than the share of Israelis who trusted Barack Obama when he was in office. The swing in Russia was far more pronounced, with 53 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in Mr. Trump, versus just 11 per cent who answered the same way when they had been asked about Mr. Obama.
That sentiment creates a conundrum for Mr. Putin and his advisers ahead of Russia's own presidential elections next year, when Mr. Putin – who has been Russia's president or prime minister since 1999 – is widely expected to seek another six-year term in the top office. Not only does Mr. Trump appear unable to deliver sanctions relief, he has also deprived official Moscow of a U.S. president to blame for all Russia's own ills.
"For the Kremlin, it's now harder to define the enemy. With Obama, it was more comfortable, and Hillary, too, would have given them a simple enemy to blame for the ways of the world. They could say that all the trouble and hardships in Russia are because of the Americans," says Mr. Yashin, the opposition activist. "Now, we still have trouble and hardships, and it's more difficult to explain them to the people. How can it be America's fault when we have our guy in the White House?"
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent, based in London.
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