With Trump In Office, Did The Kremlin Get More Than It Bargained For?

May 21, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 11:24 am

When Donald Trump was running for president, the Kremlin didn't make a secret that it preferred him to Hillary Clinton.

The thinking in Moscow was that Clinton would follow President Obama in trying to diminish Russia's role in the world. Trump, on the other hand, promised not only to be friendlier to Russia, but to turn established U.S. foreign policy on its head.

Now it might seem that Russian President Vladimir Putin's wildest dreams have come true: Trump is in the White House, and the United States is too distracted by internal divisions to throw its weight around internationally.

But while schadenfreude at America's domestic chaos is the prevailing sentiment in Moscow, there's a growing worry that the Kremlin might be getting more than it bargained for.

On Wednesday, Putin reacted to reports that Trump had revealed highly classified material to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"Initially when we watched the first developments in this internal political struggle, we were amused," Putin said. "But now the spectacle is becoming quite simply sad, and it is causing us concern."

Putin was so concerned that he even offered to provide Congress with the Kremlin's record of Trump's meeting with Lavrov in the White House earlier this month.

Individual reports about the Kremlin's role in U.S. politics don't reach a wide audience in Russia, says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. But taken as a whole, they project an image of Russia's newfound power.

"The more scandals and rumors connected to Russia, the better it is for Putin to demonstrate how important he is – and how important the country has become under his leadership," said Petrov.

Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign policy analyst, says Putin's offer to "help" Trump by providing a record of the Lavrov meeting was directed at a domestic audience.

"It kind of elevates Putin over Trump – makes him an elder statesman, an experienced guy who can criticize the United States for childish behavior," Frolov said.

Still, frustration is increasing that there have been no tangible improvements in U.S.-Russian relations in the first four months of the Trump administration. His fans in Moscow don't blame the U.S. president, but hostile media and Democratic politicians.

"We from Moscow look at Mr. Trump with a lot of sympathy, but we also regret that he has so many enemies which effectively blocked his policy," said Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst.

Even though Lavrov's visit to the Oval Office was a success for the Kremlin, there was hope in Moscow that Trump would quickly meet Putin to jumpstart relations.

Foreign affairs analyst Frolov says the Kremlin still thinks it can deal with the U.S. president.

"I think they can manage Trump by flattery, by playing up to his weaknesses, by inflating his ego," he said. "They can manage him, manipulate him. He looks like an easy target."

Although Putin expressed anger at Trump's missile strike on Russia's ally Syria in April, such unpredictable decisions are less worrying to the Kremlin than if the United States showed a clear strategy to change the Syrian regime, Frolov says.

Yet turmoil in the White House could turn out to be too much of a good thing for the Kremlin.

"It's possible to think that Russia can benefit from this chaos," said political scientist Petrov. "But in the longer term, I think that it's not in Russia's interests as well."

In the current political climate, it's hard to see Russia and the U.S. reaching an agreement on major issues such as bringing peace to Syria or ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine, a precondition for lifting sanctions on Moscow.

It's positive for Russia that the U.S. is preoccupied with domestic politics, says pro-Kremlin analyst Markov. But at the same time, Russia doesn't want to be demonized in what he calls a "new McCarthyism" in the United States.

"Chaos on one hand is good because foreign policy is not so active," said Markov. "On the other hand, it's bad for the future because it can create an absolutely unpredictable foreign policy of the United States."

A worst-case scenario for the Kremlin would be the tumult in Washington ending with Trump's impeachment – and his replacement by a president openly hostile to Russia.

The Kremlin is waiting for a Putin-Trump meeting – as early as July – to set the course.

During a visit to China last weekend, Putin played a couple of popular Russian songs on a grand piano while waiting for his hosts.

Asked later what he'd play for Trump, Putin scratched his head.

"I don't know," he said. "I think I should meet with him first, discuss things, and choose a tune depending on the results."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

You might think the Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be a happy man. His preferred candidate is now the U.S. president, and Washington is so divided that it can hardly have time to worry about foreign policy. But there is growing concern in Moscow that the Kremlin might be getting more than it bargained for. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When Americans celebrated President Trump's inauguration in January, his fans in Russia also welcomed the change in Washington. There was an expectation that Trump would make good on his pledge to improve relations, perhaps by canceling the sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Now, four months into Trump's presidency, there's no evidence of a new policy. President Putin vented to reporters this week following accusations that Trump had leaked secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "At first, it was funny to watch the political struggle in Washington," Putin said. "Now it's not only sad but cause for concern." Putin was so concerned that he even offered to provide Congress with the Kremlin's record of Trump's meeting with Lavrov. Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov says there haven't been any tangible improvements in relations, and he blames the Democrats.

SERGEI MARKOV: We are - from Moscow look at Mr. Trump with a lot of sympathy, but we also regret that he has so many enemies which effectively blocked his policy.

KIM: There's also frustration that Trump and Putin haven't met yet, but foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov says the Kremlin still thinks it can deal with the U.S. president.

VLADIMIR FROLOV: I think they can manage Trump by flattery, by playing up to his weaknesses, by inflating his ego. They can manage him, manipulate him. He looks like an easy target.

KIM: Still, turmoil in the White House could be too much of a good thing for the Kremlin. Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says Russia prefers the U.S. to be rational and predictable.

NIKOLAI PETROV: So in a short while, it's possible to think that Russia can benefit from this chaos, but in the longer term I think that it's not in Russia's interests as well.

KIM: Sergei Markov is anxious that too much turmoil in Washington could end with Trump being replaced by a more hostile president.

MARKOV: Chaos on one hand is good because foreign policy is not so active when others can't, on other hand is bad the future because it can create absolutely unpredictable foreign policy of United States in future.

KIM: In other words, no one expects Moscow and Washington to be in perfect harmony, but too much dissonance worries the Kremlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Playing piano).

KIM: During a visit to China last weekend, Putin played on a piano while waiting for his hosts. When asked later what tune he'd play for Trump, he scratched his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "I don't know," Putin said, "I think we first need to meet, and then we'll decide on the melody." Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.