Looking ahead to the midterms, President Donald Trump tweeted recently: “I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!” And yet, they do.
Recent commentary on Russia’s tightly controlled state television reveals that pro-Kremlin forces are still rooting for the Republicans. And against his enemies, even in death.
With glee, Russian political figures rejoiced over the passing of the late, great Sen. John McCain. Oleg Morozov, a member of the International Affairs Committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, wrote, “The enemy died.” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT [the Russian state’s international television network] admitted: “I am a lousy Christian... I can’t love my enemies. I can’t even have compassion for them. I can only will myself not to gloat.”
One of the reasons McCain’s death was so deeply enjoyed by the pro-establishment Russians is that they don’t see a worthy replacement for the anti-Trump, anti-Putin elements anywhere within the Republican party. Karen Shakhnazarov, a prominent film director who is a regular on Russian state TV, summed up that perspective on the political opinion show 60 Minutes: “Global empires like the United States are destroyed from within... The U.S. is deteriorating. They won’t find other fighters like McCain. There won’t be any others like him. This process is irreversible.”
With respect to the sanctions, Russian experts see them as Trump’s “pre-election trump cards,” a set of measures designed to make him look “tough on Russia” in the run-up to midterms.
Kremlin experts believe that most of these measures are being proposed just for show and will never materialize. Indeed, the Russians don’t perceive the Republicans as a viable threat.
Pro-Putin talking heads appear to be particularly fond of Trump’s core constituency, whose interests they believe to be the most compatible with Russia’s global goals.
The Kremlin is interested in having the U.S. withdraw from the world stage, giving up its role as the dominant superpower, retreating to domestic affairs and global commerce, including a radical 180-degree shift from sanctions to business dealings with Russia. “With Americans, it’s all very clear,” said Russian state TV host Evgeny Popov. “In Iowa or someplace in Montana, they’re more concerned with the price of corn or beef than Crimea.”
Russian government officials, experts and state TV hosts are quick to point out that Russia does not intend to change its behavior on the world stage. They point to “a global conspiracy” as the sole cause of the sanctions imposed against Russia, while obfuscating direct links between the Kremlin’s actions and the consequences that followed.
The host of the Russian state TV talk show 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, said: “When we look at Washington, we understand that the sanctions mean there truly is a conspiracy.” Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, asserted that the idea of a global conspiracy against Russia “is not a matter of a belief… it’s a matter of knowing.” Franz Klintsevich, a member of the Defense Committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, claimed that a “multi-faceted global plot to destroy Russia” has been in existence for centuries.
Putin’s mouthpieces advocate for the resumption of “normal” relations with the West, while offering nothing in return.
According to Russian politicians and experts, one of the agreements quietly reached by Putin and Trump in Helsinki included the establishment of a business council “to unite leaders of Russian and U.S. businesses.” Putin reportedly proposed a return to the format which was known in the past as the Presidential Commission or as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission—a group organized by the U.S. and Russian governments that encouraged mutual investments and joint business opportunities. The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission was established in 1993 and operated until Boris Yeltsin, the former president of Russia, dismissed Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister in March 1998. The commission’s work was marred by the accusations of its ineffectiveness, the widespread corruption of Russian officials and the scandalous nature of the confidential 1995 accord, which exempted Russia from U.S. sanctions on arms deliveries to Iran, which were then covertly augmented by the Kremlin’s sales of missile and nuclear technologies. The Russians are now seeking to create similar initiatives.
“Putin clearly said that American businesses and Russian businesses will participate in joint development of major economical projects,” notes Vladimir Vasiliev, senior fellow at Moscow’s Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies.
Dmitry Abzalov, director of the Center for Strategic Communications in the Russian capital, suggested a strategy to aid Trump by touting his economic successes and creating joint business opportunities. As long as the American economy is strong, he opined, Trump won’t need to impose the sanctions against Russia to affect the outcome of the midterms. Abzalov recommended that the Russians temporarily abstain from any actions that might prompt the U.S. to impose additional sanctions. He cautioned: “We can seriously benefit from these deals, there’s potential profit at stake. We shouldn’t let Trump down right now, our main goal right now is to help him with correct arguments. He will follow through with an internal agenda and economy.”
60 Minutes host Olga Skabeeva chimed in, "Help him, direct him, support him,” then added ironically, “and then you'll say he isn't ours."
Pro-Kremlin experts and propagandists have no doubt that the Republicans will fall in line with Trump’s agenda, unless they’re “suicidal” in terms of their political prospects. Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman of the committee for relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Russian nationals abroad or the Duma, or lower house, is a leading figure in Putin’s United Russia party.
In discussing the outcome of the Helsinki summit, Zatulin asserted: National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “just sat there. Did you hear them voicing any accusations against Russia?... Naturally, Trump’s team—if they aren’t suicidal—will find arguments in support of the president. Those who don’t, won’t be on his team—or maybe they won’t be in Congress.”
(“Suicidal” seems to be a favorite Russian word for anyone who dares oppose Trump.)
According to recent reports, Pompeo requested a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov prior to the deadline for imposing sweeping new sanctions against Russia. Diplomats familiar with the effort told The Washington Post that this outreach is being directed personally by President Trump.
Lavrov agreed to meet Pompeo, requesting that the meeting include the discussions of Putin’s longtime goals: the establishment of a business council to promote trade between the U.S. and Russia, as well as an exchange of Russian and American scholars and think-tank fellows.
That sounds benign enough. But injecting the Russian perspective into the U.S. environment is an important aspect of the Kremlin’s ongoing info-war against the West.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently admitted that Russia is punching above its weight and is unable to respond to the U.S. sanctions symmetrically. He pointed out that Russia’s response to the U.S. sanctions will include blacklisting more Americans and utilizing its powerful “info-component.” Ryabkov added that any retaliatory measures, including Russia’s asymmetrical response to sanctions, are a sole prerogative of the Russian President.
60 Minutes host Skabeeva asked: “Just to scare the Americans, what are some of those measures?” Ryabkov slyly responded that publicly discussing such matters would be counterproductive, as it would only forewarn the Americans, allowing them to prepare for what’s coming. He added: “Our methods will work, they’ll be effective—I’m certain of that.”
In 2017, addressing the question of Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections, Putin suggested suggested that “patriotically minded” Russian hackers could have been involved. The host of a popular state TV show Vladimir Soloviev joked that Republican lawmakers recently traveled to Russia “to make deals with our hackers, so they can rig the midterms in favor of Trump's team.”
As long as Trump’s—and by extension the Republican Party’s—interests are believed to match Putin’s objectives, hacking, cyber-attacks and info-offensives against the Democrats will continue to be considered “patriotic” by the Kremlin.