Less than a month into his U.S. presidency, Donald Trump achieved what no other politician, flamboyant in character or principled in manifesto, has managed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He dethroned the Russian leader as the nation’s most talked about media persona in January. With the Trump administration’s alleged links to Russia under scrutiny, it is likely Trump will eclipse his Russian counterpart in February too.
On Monday, Trump’s security advisor Mike Flynn resigned over obscure talks with the Russian ambassador; by Tuesday, allegations had spread to Trump’s team, as the New York Times reported leaked call intercepts that showed more compromising contact between Trump’s aides and Moscow.
For every such development, the Russian political establishment has a new talking point. But what they’re saying publicly is not all that cohesive. Some officials such as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov deny the allegations,, others, such as deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, have claimed contacts with Trump’s team happened but are not out of the ordinary. Russian lawmakers jumped to Trump’s defense and suggested the allegations are a swipe at Russia.
While official response has remained muted, Kremlinologists point to three scenarios officials and politicians in Moscow are likely considering in view of the Trump administration’s Russian predicament.
The (Dis)United States Benefit Russia
Putin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry repeatedly complain that U.S. criticisms of Moscow’s foreign and domestic policy are systemic “Russophobia.” During the U.S. presidential election Putin said he felt Trump’s Democratic Party opponents were “playing the Russia card” to drum up support via their allegations of Russian hacking. Certainly since Trump arrived in the White House, criticism of Russia has been more muted.
During fresh outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian troops and the Russian-backed forces in east Ukraine earlier this month, Trump turned his attention to other issues. When asked about it on TV, a chance that his predecessor, Barack Obama, would have used to condemn Moscow for backing these forces, Trump said “we don’t know exactly what that is.” Later in the interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly Trump was asked if he considered Putin a killer, considering that during his stewardship of Russia government critics have met sudden, violent and mysterious ends.
“You think our country is so innocent?” came Trump’s response. It was uncharacteristically critical for a U.S. president to question American exceptionalism, but to some of his fanbase, particularly in Russia, this rhetorical question rang true. In the U.S. Trump has come under intense scrutiny for his remark, and James Nixey, Eurasia policy expert at Chatham House, believes Russians will use this to criticize the media’s treatment of Trump, after years of suspecting that the American system is rigged against any pro-Russian policies.
“The ideal for Russia is a subservient U.S. administration, and at the moment it seems that Trump’s views on Russia are not shared by his party or some in his administration,” Nixey says. “By and large Russians want Trump in power but I suppose they will look at the instability in Washington with a bit of schadenfreude. With respect to U.S. policies things are not going their way, but all this bickering [between Trump and some Republicans] makes the U.S. look weaker.”
For Russia, any sign of U.S. weakness is seen as a benefit. “The U.S. used to have the monopoly on soft power,” Nixey says. “That is why the Russians always lost in getting wider international support; sure they could win some diplomatic battles, but they could never win [at] establishing many permanent allies. But if western soft power is weakened then to Russia, which sees this as a zero sum game, the Kremlin’s stock goes up.”
Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who represented Putin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a highly politicized fraud case on several occasions over the last decade, says there is another perk for Russia in the controversy around the Trump camp.
“The question is, to what extent has the world lost sight of other issues as a result of this?” he says. “America is engaged in this very intense, wildly partisan game of thrones and Russia and China stand to gain from it. Take a look at what Russia is doing when we are asleep. Violence in Ukraine is flaring up, while China is undeterred in the South China Sea. Russia is courting the Philippines, Vietnam. Washington should be paying attention to that.”
The Kremlin’s Poisoned Chalice
While Moscow may see benefits in highlighting instability across the Atlantic, some must realize that the more Russia is seen to be intervening in American politics, the more emboldened Russia hawks will become in the U.S. Offering support to Trump could damage his administration and therefore Russia’s chances of favorable policies, Nixey warns.
“The Russians are wondering what is next for this administration,” he says. “Do they turn on Trump, and can they do that when they don’t know who might be coming next? These are all questions they must be asking themselves now. Not cooling off [in their support from Trump] could result in his victory going south for them.”
“By constantly coming to Trump’s defense, they are actually making Trump’s situation worse,” says John Herbst, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Eurasia analyst at the Atlantic Council. “Undermining Trump’s position undermines their own in advancing their policy goals. Moscow’s endgame is having a president in the White House that will give them what they want—dropping sanctions, legitimizing their actions in Ukraine and Syria. [Instead] this is turning the GOP and the public against Trump.”
Republicans with a hawkish stance on Russia will find it increasingly uncomfortable to back any action seeming to favor Moscow, if shady communications are compounded with visible Russian sympathies. Trump’s own Vice President Mike Pence discussed potentially lifting sanctions earlier this month before Flynn admitted to having mislead him about his discussion with the Russian Ambassador. “I don’t think Mike Pence will ever talk about lifting sanctions again,” Herbst adds.
Herbst suggests that in defending Trump and denying allegations of influence, Russia may have created a situation that could backfire on them. “We have seen this before with Putin: when he feels he is on a roll, he becomes prideful and does things that are against his policy goals,” he says. “Either Moscow has made a miscalculation in drawing attention to its interference in U.S. politics or their actual influence was quite limited but they want the world to think that Russia is extraordinarily capable [and] that it has compromised the U.S. system in some deliberate way.”
The Kremlin Is Paralysed by the “Siberian Candidate”
As much as Trump has shocked mainstream U.S. politics with his views on Russia, his comments have rarely mentioned specific policies. He has promised to “look” at sanctions and see if he can “get along” with Putin. He has vowed to “find out” if the Kremlin controls the Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, rather than accepting the NATO line that they are, and suggested joining forces with Russia in Syria. None of these promise a definitive policy result, merely a consideration of existing policies. And therefore, experts suggest he may yet be pressured to take a tougher line if Russian scandals continue to grow.
As Mark Galeotti, Russia analyst at the Institute of International Relations Prague, notes, it is likely that while lawmakers still speak out in favor of Trump, the central Russian authorities know they cannot help themselves with anything but silence. Hence why neither the presidential nor Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople have commented on Trump since Flynn’s dismissal.
“I have never accepted this notion of Trump as the Siberian candidate [i.e. in the service of Russia],” he says. “I can see no evidence that [Russian] national security and foreign security services wanted to end up with Trump [through] cyber attacks, rather they wanted to weaken Clinton. With Trump there are no red lines and they don’t know what to expect. Trump could be dangerous to the Kremlin because of this unpredictability. There is a certain level of paralysis that comes out of it.”
When it comes to actual policy and overt contact since the inauguration, Trump and Putin have had little to shake hands about. The Kremlin refused to comment on Trump’s immigration ban —his most high profile decision to date—even though the ban condemned two Russian allies in Syria and Iran. A presidential meeting between the pair may not occur until the G20 summit in July, despite Trump’s vow to meet Putin within weeks of being elected.
Notably, following Flynn’s departure, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer reopened the issue of Ukraine, taking the most hardline stance on annexed Crimea that he has ever voiced in his current role. He said Trump expected Russia to restore the territory to Ukraine. Within hours Trump was on Twitter himself, asking his followers if his predecessor was “too soft on Russia.”
Herbst says this could be the start of a “pivot on Russia” as Trump seeks to recover his image. “Trump is supposed to be the tough guy right? He’s supposed to be the one calling the shots, but these reported contacts suggest a very clear answer to who is in charge,” he says. “Trump may seek a change of rhetoric now.”
Galeotti agrees that from Moscow’s perspective, strategists in the Kremlin must realize that constant links to Russia are “so bad for Trump that he has to diffuse allegations of being close to Putin.
“If I was a Kremlin strategist I would be worried that if the pressure on Trump grows, he has to do something like increase sanctions or send combat troops to Ukraine. Trump is only interested in Trump—[for Russia], not having any idea where this may lead is paralyzing them.”