Why Russians Have Gone Cold on Trump

A woman walks through Red Square in Moscow on March 7, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in years as evidence mounts about the complex relationship between President Donald Trump's administration and the Russian government. Spencer Platt/Getty

This article first appeared in the Wilson Quarterly.

Attitudes toward President Donald Trump in Russia changed from euphoric support to utter disappointment in the space of the new U.S. president's first 100 days in the White House.

I do not remember any other instance in which Russian elites and the general public have experienced such an emotional overload in trying to determine their position about a foreign leader.

The reasons for the misunderstanding lie deeper than immediate politics of the past months. The relationship between the United States and Russia is like no other. It is heavily invested with both the gravest issues of international security and the most volatile political fancy.

As opposed to the U.S.-Chinese interdependent rapport, the U.S.-Russia story has almost no economic dimension. Therefore, it is not anchored in national vested interests and is open to exploitation for immediate political gain. This is why emotions can run high.

The share of Russians polled by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion who said they had a positive view of President Trump went from 38 percent to 13 percent immediately after the U.S. military strikes in Syria on April 6. The number of Russians who had a negative opinion of Trump went up from 7 percent to 39 percent on the same date.

Back in November 2016, almost half of those polled expected the U.S.-Russian relationship to improve after a Trump win. Only 34 percent thought so recently, and 82 percent said that the relations were "negative." To understand these wild swings, one has to go back to the roots of U.S.-Russian relations.

Equal stakeholders

In my secondary school years in the late 1980s, "Deployment of New Missiles in Europe Must Stop," "Moscow Pulls Out of the U.S. Olympics," and "Reagan's Great Lie in the Sky" were the kinds of news stories one had to present in front of the class after spending an evening sifting through the newspapers. We had weekly "political information" classes back then, and these headlines come back to me whenever I remember those times.

The acrimony of Soviet television and newspapers was so habitual that it did not strike one as truly biting. It was just the way the world was: they called us "evil," we called them "imperialists"; they were running their part of the world, we were ruling ours.

Underlying all the media noise was a notion firmly held by both sides that they were equals, each power holding a 50 percent stake in the world's ultimate security "joint venture." The Soviet bloc and other socialist-leaning countries were not called "the second world" for nothing.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia sought to consolidate its former international status. Moscow made sure the Soviet nuclear arsenal was on Russian territory, took up responsibility for the Union's debts, inherited its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and claimed the former republics' largest foreign assets.

By virtue of this transition, the Russian elites have always considered themselves entitled to the Soviet Union's stature in the world.

Americans thought otherwise. U.S. politicians — starting with George H.W. Bush, who in 1992 declared that "the Cold War didn't end; it was won" — tended to see Russia's stake in the world as diminished.

Of course, this was a viewpoint, not a document: the standoff between the powers of the capitalist West and the socialist East had been very real, but no capitulation treaty was signed at the end of the Cold War because the war, itself, had never been formally declared. The same goes for the Soviet-American security "joint venture": it had never been instituted on paper and could be easily diluted.

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Or so it feels now. "The collapse of the Soviet Union was unique in the pace with which the country's international status crumbled," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, wrote in Vedomosti at the end of January, not long after President Trump's inauguration.

"In November 1991, the USSR was one of the two pillars of the world order. (Mikhail Gorbachev served as one of the two principals, with Bush, of the 1991 Madrid Conference, an attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.) In December of the same year, the newly independent Russia was receiving humanitarian aid from its former adversaries — no military defeat suffered!"

Destination West

This is today's vision. I am not sure that many, even among the top officials, felt so strongly about the loss of Russia's international status back in the 1990s. The overwhelming concern was to make sure the transition was peaceful.

"The Soviet Union had more than five million soldiers deployed from Budapest to Vladivostok, and hundreds of thousands more troops in KGB and interior ministry battalions," the historian Stephen Kotkin wrote in his aptly named book, Armageddon Averted. "It experienced almost no major mutinies in any of these forces. And yet, they were never fully used."

The transition was peaceful for a reason. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and a breakneck privatization of the assets created by generations of Soviet engineers, workers, and prisoners was the opportunity of a century. The people who understood this were very much interested in keeping the peace. The elites concentrated on their family's economic survival or, if the opportunities presented themselves, future prosperity.

Taking care of the former Soviet Union's stake in the global security architecture was not Moscow's priority at the time. It is for future historians to establish, but my take is that the trade-off between the great-power status, on the one hand, and the prosperity of the chosen few, on the other, was quite conscious. Today's narrative of a great nation robbed of its former glory was not there yet.

President Vladimir Putin and his circle watched their peers enriching themselves up close. It was a Darwinian struggle of the fittest just to stay in one piece and siphon off the proceeds.

Putin and his friends may have hated what they saw, but they were no opponents of the policies of Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin, either. Meanwhile, the second half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s saw a major expansion of the American-backed institutions of the West: NATO and the European Union. Moscow never loved this expansion, but also never protested forcefully against it until a certain point.

As late as the early 2010s, the working plan that Moscow seemed to be following was for Russia to be part of a Greater West, a loose community of nations that were too divergent economically and politically to fit the European Union, NATO, or even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but were still parts of a value-based whole.

It was because of this understanding that Moscow tolerated the expansion of the West: it was thinking of itself as an aspiring part of the West, too.

Unfinished business

When it became obvious that this plan had not worked out, nostalgia for the Soviet Union's status as an equal to the United States went into full blossom. The story of a great power deceived by its scheming partners became one of the dominant narratives developed by Russia's state-run media.

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"We all had illusions. We thought that — even after Russia, voluntarily and consciously, undertook absolutely historical limitations to its territory and manufacturing capacity," Vladimir Putin said in a documentary released in 2015. "As the ideological component was gone, we were hoping that 'freedom will greet us at the door and brothers will hand us our sword.'"

These words — a quote from Alexander Pushkin — are remarkable not just because of a reference to a Russian Romantic poem and a sword, but also because of the conditional character Putin ascribes to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Moscow's sense of entitlement to great-power status began to grow exponentially. Following the 2011–12 protests, Moscow reconceptualized the so-called "color revolutions" as being not just hostile acts, but weapons of political warfare deployed against Russia.

Under the circumstances, there was only one way that Russia's leaders could read the events in Ukraine in early 2014, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country following mass protests: the Kremlin read it as a prelude to Western-led regime change in Moscow.

As a response, Russia broke out of the post–Cold War security agreements and annexed a part of another post-Soviet state, the peninsula of Crimea, a region of Ukraine. The events that followed the annexation and the breakout of war in Ukraine — the expulsion of Russia from G8; the introduction of American and European sanctions; a steep economic decline, caused mainly by a coinciding oil plunge — put U.S.-Russian relations into a deep freeze. But Moscow never meant to reach a point of no return.

When acting aggressively, Russia was acting in the belief — a belief that Putin reiterated on many occasions — that the past show of weakness was the cause of Russia's troubles and that the present show of strength would bring back what was lost.

By its use of force in Ukraine and later in Syria, Moscow was seeking to reinforce its negotiating position for a reinvigorated international status. The Obama administration, in Moscow's view, did not understand the proposition — and so, the thinking went, a new administration would. A new president in Washington was Russia's hope for a turnaround in an argument that had been left unresolved for the two-and-a-half post–Cold War decades.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, Russia's government-owned television channel that broadcasts in foreign languages, welcomed the Trump win on election night and immediately suggested that she would retire as soon as "Trump recognizes Crimea as part of Russia, strikes a deal with us on Syria, and frees Julian Assange."

This was the list of immediate political talking points that Moscow wanted to address when Trump was elected. Of course, Margarita Simonyan did not have to retire. It quickly became clear that those wishes would not be granted fast. But the real expectations were that the new administration would sit down with Moscow and make good on a debt that, Moscow thought, Washington owed it.

We still do not have the full picture of Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election, but the Kremlin was invested in it in the sense that it did expect a lot from the outcome. We do not know all the tools that may have been used; even if we learn more about them, this information will be technical.

The non-technical and fundamental part is that Moscow developed a sense of entitlement to a better representation in the world and tried to push for this entitlement to be recognized in Washington. I would not be surprised if Moscow did use some old tricks in trying to help the new administration move in the desired direction.

What still surprises me is the kind of approach that Moscow has taken if, indeed, the idea was to get back to a conversation about Russia's desired role in the world. A country cannot trick others into recognizing its worth.

The two sides' divergent perspectives on Russia's standing in the world originate at the very beginning of a long drama that is the U.S.-Russia post–Cold War relationship. The notion of Russia's being a major stakeholder in the world persisted on the Russian side and disappeared on the American side.

For a long time, Russian society did not care about its loss of status, but it was reminded of such problems relatively recently by the state-run media, and only because of some profound disappointments the Russian elites had experienced over the past decade or so.

For the elites, it turned out that being personally rich was not enough, and the riches themselves were transitory given the precarious state of a barely modernized, heavily oil-dependent economy devoid of any consistent rules, let alone the rule of law. It is a society that must feel strong, not just its elites.

Even if the Kremlin rulers sincerely believed that the West had tricked Russia out of the status it truly deserved, it should have recognized that pure deception is never enough: one needs substance to show for it.

The Russian economy and trade were to be the Kremlin's main concerns if it wanted Russia to be recognized again as a major world power.

To secure that recognition, the Kremlin would better engage in a relationship with the U.S. that would be beneficial to Russia's businesses and scientific and scholarly communities — on top of the security agenda that will remain a U.S-Russia subject, no matter what.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily.

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