Letter from Moscow: how the Trump inauguration is being viewed in Russia

In today’s hyper-sensitive Moscow, literally gun-shy of America, the distance between micro-events, like my treatment a couple of days ago on Russian television, and macro-developments, like improving bilateral relations, is very small indeed.

Letter from Moscow: how the Trump inauguration is being viewed in Russia


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.                            


I write today from Moscow, where I have been invited by one of the Russian state television networks broadcasting to the domestic audience to participate in their talk shows before and immediately after the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Contrary to what you might expect from the content of American mainstream media, or from the celebratory programming of Russia Today, which is beamed to international audiences, the mood and expectations of Official Russia towards Trump’s coming to power are quite muted.

To be sure, there was no Women’s March down the streets of Moscow to protest the accession to power of Donald Trump. But neither was there a fireworks display to celebrate the installation in Washington of the new “Manchurian Candidate” who is about to do the Kremlin’s bidding, as we have heard from the bitterly partisan narrative fabricated by the coalition of Neoconservatives and Liberal Hawks occupying central ground in US political life.

From what I saw on Friday as an invitee to a top rated talk show, an invitee whose flight to Moscow and expenses on the ground were generously paid by my hosts, directives from communications bosses in the Kremlin overrode the inclinations of the show’s producers and in my presence there was a tug-of-war within the show’s production team over when and for how long to give me the microphone.  In the meanwhile, the microphone was offered repeatedly and without hesitation to the other American on the panel who represents the evil, Russophobic America that your average Russian television viewer loves to hate on this and many other talk shows produced by the country’s leading broadcasters, Pervy Kanal, Rossiya-1-Vesti 24 and NTV.

From my subsequent discussion of my experience with a couple of very experienced Russian political analysts occupying different political perspectives, I am reassured that there was nothing personal in the snub and in the contradictory signals I received from my Russian hosts. After all, I am a known supporter of Trump and of constructive relations between Washington and Moscow, all of which explained my invitation by the television company in the first place.

The communications office of the Kremlin definitely has the final word on what gets aired for domestic consumption and it is very hesitant to take a stand on the likelihood of a thaw in relations with Washington under Trump.  Up to now, the Kremlin was skeptical that Trump was serious in his pronouncements of readiness for improved relations; now they are skeptical that he can prevail over the Deep State and deliver the goods of détente. This is a matter of cardinal importance for what the US administration has for the past 16 years chosen to call the “Putin regime.” 

It is a persistent feature of Russian national character over centuries for there to be a surge of patriotic emotions and rally round the flag when the country comes under external threat. That tradition kicked in following America’s imposition of economic sanctions and application of heavy military pressure on Russia’s borders as punishment for their absorption of the Crimea and assistance to the insurgency in the Ukraine’s southeastern provinces of Donbas. 

President Putin’s personal approval ratings shot up from the mid-60’s to the 85% level, where they stand today, largely on the back of the patriotic wave of emotion and popular understanding that he and his administration are effectively defending Russian national interests, whatever their failings on the economy, on corruption and on political reform. However, this popularity is fragile and could suddenly collapse if President Putin were to be seen to sacrifice the defense assets of the nation by bargaining them away in deals that are not perceived as fool-proof and as ensuring equal if not better returns for the Russian side. 

It was these considerations which dictated great prudence by Putin in responding to Prime Minister Abe’s peace offensive during his visit to Japan last December.  Giving up sovereignty over any of the Kurile Islands is one of the red lines that Vladimir Putin cannot cross lest he lose face domestically. Similarly, the Kremlin has to tread very carefully when responding to any olive branch from Washington.

On its own merits, there was an important sign of the changed thinking in Washington about prospective relations with Russia in Donald Trump’s suggestion at his press conference a week ago that progress on the implementation of the Minsk Accords and pacification of the Ukraine’s rebel provinces, all of which depends more on Kiev’s good will than on actions from Moscow, would no longer be used as the  new metrics for lifting sanctions. Instead, we were told that progress on talks to curb the nuclear arms race and enter into new agreements to reduce nuclear stockpiles will be the determinant, and these are fully controllable by Washington and Moscow acting alone.

This suggestion was very important as a shorthand message: namely, putting America First means looking after American security first and considering the security of allies second. Specifically, the focus of US foreign policy will be on the triangular relationship between the world’s most powerful military forces: Russia, China and the United States.  All other countries will be of secondary importance. In effect, the tail will stop wagging the dog, as it has for the past 16 years, and the anti-Russian coalition of the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine will no longer be allowed to poison US-Russian relations. 

The given suggestion on nuclear arms reduction was not a spur of the moment consideration of Donald Trump. It clearly came from his top current, if unofficial advisers on foreign policy, namely Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn. Nunn just happened to be present at the start of the Senate confirmation hearings of Rex Tillerson for the post of Secretary of State. 

However, this suggestion turned out to be a non-starter for the Kremlin.  Initial indications of surprise and skepticism by Russian officials the same day turned into a flat rejection of the olive branch from Washington by Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov during an interview with the BBC this weekend.  Russia knows well that its conventional armed forces are still no match for NATO, that its nuclear deterrent is its great leveler, and it absolutely refuses to reduce its nuclear arsenal until there are substantial changes in the European and global defense architecture that make any reduction in its nuclear arsenal possible.

Thus, the Kremlin is withholding its seal of approval on the incoming Trump administration and is managing the Russian mass media accordingly.  The results of the latest poll of Russian public opinion towards prospects for changed relations with Trump’s America just released by the news agency RIA Novosti show that the Kremlin has very effectively managed communications to achieve the desired effect.

The question posed on 20 January was:  Do you expect changed relations between Russia and the USA following the inauguration of Trump? The results were:

  1. Yes, the President-elect said repeatedly of his desire for cooperation with Moscow. 17.1%
  2. There will be changes, but it is still not clear in which direction. 63.1%
  3. No, most likely the new administration will continue the previous course. 19.8%

In this context, I have no complaints against the management of the Pervy Kanal talk show who invited me. They were overruled for understandable reasons. But my conclusions go far beyond the incidents of my visit. They provide a clear indication for US policy makers that improving relations with Russia will require considerable creativity and persistence on the part of our policy makers.

Meanwhile, the expectations of the American business community for improved relations are very high. In a meeting on Friday morning with the president of the largest association of U.S. corporations doing business in Russia, I was told that their Board expects the sectoral sanctions on Russia to be lifted quickly and no later than within one year. This optimism is founded on the primary attention that Donald Trump gives to removing obstacles standing in the way of American businesses generally, removing the heavy hand of Washington from their operations domestically and abroad.

However, it may also be argued that the sanctions have been highly politicized and their removal, assuming proper metrics justifying such action can be agreed with the Russians, will come at a heavy cost in political capital from the President.  Moreover, there are other things Trump could do, entirely within his powers as Commander-in-Chief, and independently from Congress, that would dramatically lessen tensions with Russia and build confidence for future improvement of relations in all directions. I have in mind specifically the cessation of military exercises along Russian borders by US and NATO forces, the removal of the US brigades just introduced in Poland in the past few weeks and the start of dismantlement of US bases that are surrounding the frontiers of the Russian Federation.

In today’s hyper-sensitive Moscow, literally gun-shy of America, the distance between micro-events, like my treatment a couple of days ago on Russian television, and macro-developments, like improving bilateral relations, is very small indeed.

 P.S. – a shortened edition of the Pervy Kanal broadcast of the “Time Will Tell” talk show on Friday, 20 January may be accessed via the following link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xejLyhkjqek&list=PLAe6Au-aKEc9TYn9Gdyqn3aivM4qMwAaE&index=1

PPS –  the follow-on Pervy Kanal broadcast of “Time Will Tell” of Monday, 23 January 2017 dedicated to Donald Trump’s inauguration:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D9f4cLVdZU 

And for comparison, the Sunday, 22 January broadcast of Russia Today’s “Cross Talk” also devoted to Trump’s inauguration but from an uninhibired pro-Trump standpoint.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrcTaSuo7nA

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017



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G.Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.