This piece was originally published in The Integrity Initiative
Russia’s interference in the internal affairs of the United States has long ceased to be a “political card”, as it’s usually described in Kremlin discourse. The indictments that are being handed down one after another by both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Department of Justice show in detail the mechanisms of Russian operations for organizing and financing influence campaigns to manipulate American society. Since tracking hacker attacks and other operations is law-enforcement work, I try here to give a brief overview of the themes in Kremlin attitudes towards the United States as observed in the Russian media and how these themes have evolved over the past two years.
Open Support for Donald Trump
Those who monitored the Russian information space before the US presidential elections were in no doubt: the Kremlin was doing everything it could, if not to support Trump, then at least to attack his opponents. All Russian state-controlled media, inside Russia and abroad, were working to discredit the Democrats. Russian-controlled hackers and WikiLeaks, who published the results of the hacks, also worked against them.
Moreover, Moscow resorted to direct nuclear blackmail, explicitly stating that in the event of a Clinton victory, nuclear war would be almost inevitable. Another type of Kremlin blackmail, directly aimed at supporting Trump, was fanning fears of civil war in the US. As noted by the Washington Post on the eve of the presidential election in 2016, Russia tried to provoke what it terms a “color revolution” in the event of Donald Trump’s defeat, which would eventually inevitably turn into a civil war. Trump, in turn, enthusiastically picked up this theme, threatening in advance not to accept the election result, claiming before the vote had even happened that it was going to be falsified and calling on his supporters to start mass protests.
Even now, the Russian-language US media predict an angry reaction by Trump voters if the impeachment procedure is started, and they often claim that continuing the investigation could lead to violence and disturbances in the streets, and say “everything possible should be done to prevent it”. The fear of a possible civil war in the United States is sometimes thrown into the English-language information space, and some American experts unintentionally broadcast it, often without even realizing that they are playing into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.
Also, the work of numerous Russian trolls, often displaying the American flag, was dedicated to the support of Donald Trump. In addition, the overwhelming majority of the Russian-language media in the United States also took an absolutely pro-Trump position. This even applied to media outlets that positioned themselves as opposition and anti-Putin.
The efforts of the Russian-language press and TV channels in the US cannot be underestimated. For example, Russian-language RT television channel every day expresses strong support for Trump at his every move, including his anti-media and anti-immigrant stances, relentlessly accuses the Democrats of “resistance” against Trump and planning “to build socialism” in the US, and fans the fears of civil war. Also, the channel tirelessly repeats the claim that “no evidence of Russian influence” on the presidential election 2016 has been found, repeating Trump’s ‘witch hunt’ label for the Mueller investigation.
Meanwhile, the Russian domestic press continues to strongly support Trump. In particular, the business newspaper Vzglyad regularly quoted Trump’s words describing CNN as a source of “fake news”, translated his Tweets about how the “fake media are out of control”, and published its own ‘analysis’ on how “CNN is on the verge of collapse”, and is “trapped in anti-Trump propaganda and negative personnel selection”. This also includes trying to discredit the investigation by the FBI and Mueller and attacking the people conducting it, which echoes the claims circulating in both the extreme right-wing media and Russian media.
Efforts continue to be aimed at the Russian-speaking community. In early March 2017, Ekho Moskvy radio’s website began to post article after article that, while avoiding making excuses for Putin and his policies, nevertheless, in many respects, repeated the Kremlin’s rhetoric about “McCarthyism”, “Russophobia” and “innocent meetings with the Russian ambassador”. Journalist Mikhail Taratuta even called on Trump “to go on the attack”, gave detailed advice on how to attack the Democrats and rejoiced that Trump had “landed a blow on his opponent.” And the author was not at all embarrassed that the “blow” he had in mind was the unconfirmed and subsequently discredited Trump statement that Obama allegedly eavesdropped on his telephone conversations.
Along with this, more and more Russian media outlets have admitted outright that not only Trump’s public rhetoric and declared positions played into the hands of Moscow, but also some of his actions. This became especially obvious in early February 2018, when three events occurred. First, the Trump administration classified the most important part of the ‘Kremlin report’ – the new sanctions list – which blocked the option of directly applying US legislation on countering the laundering of income obtained by criminal means. Second, Trump invited the heads of Russian intelligence services to the US despite them being under sanctions. Third, the notorious memorandum was issued by the head of the Committee on Intelligence of the US House of Representatives Devin Nunes, in which the FBI and the Department of Justice were accused of bias against President Donald Trump. After that, even Russian military analysts could not restrain their joy and crowed that Trump was acting in Russia’s interests.
“The publication of Devin Nunes’ report and the investigation of the materials presented in it portend a major purge of the FBI, other US intelligence services and the DOJ, and a political earthquake in Congress. The intelligence services are the main institutions of American democracy, and if Trump has managed to co-opt them, then the days of the fake globalist press and the Congress that has fallen into imbecility are numbered,” wrote the Military Review, rejoicing that Trump had “gone on the offensive”, wasn’t afraid to openly communicate with Russian intelligence and would soon achieve the complete destruction of the mechanism of the separation of powers, a free media and an independent, law-abiding judiciary. In early June, another Russian analyst, Rostistav Ishchenko, in an article entitled “Thank you, Comrade Trump,” explicitly pointed out that for the rapprochement between Europe and Russia, you must personally thank Donald Trump and only him.
Division of labour
It is important to note that Trump’s public support from Moscow never stopped, but its format has changed somewhat over time. So, a few months before the mid-term elections to the US Congress, national Russian TV channels and their experts distanced themselves somewhat from support for Trump, handing this task to Russians who had gained American citizenship and achieved a certain weight in the United States, and so could be presented as American experts. They took up job of explaining to the Russian audience why Moscow would benefit from supporting Donald Trump. The most prominent figures here are the director of the National Interest Center Dimitri Simes and the head of the non-profit organization Russia House in Washington Edward Lozansky. Interestingly, it was Dmitry Simes whom Maria Butina, who was arrested for her activity as a foreign agent, named as one of her curators in the United States. However, Russian military analysts also underscore the importance of Simes for Russia, explicitly calling him in their articles “our friend.”
Recently, Simes became one of the co-hosts of the Big Game political talk show on Channel One, together with Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson, Vyacheslav Nikonov. In it, he regularly describes the importance and necessity of Trump for Russia (while other co-hosts sometimes voice their doubts, creating the illusion of free discussion). In particular, in a show dated 26 September, fully dedicated to Donald Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly session, Simes and movie director Karen Shakhnazarov bluntly said that Trump suits Russia because he “is annulling the US as a global empire” following “the example of Gorbachev”, who destroyed the USSR, and is abandoning basic American values.
Edward Lozansky also candidly states in his articles that he expects from Trump a new division of the world together with Russia and China, in other words, a ‘new Yalta’.
“This is an option to repeat the meeting in Yalta of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Of course, there is still Europe, but today it is in such disarray due to the exit of the UK that we can start with a trilateral meeting. The realities are such that it is time to move on to some kind of agreement. The sooner, the better, he says.
At the same time, in programmes designed for a wider audience at home, Russian propagandists sometimes do not bother with particular support for Trump. They pump out standard anti-American hysteria. where, for simplicity, all of America’s ‘evil’ actions are blamed on its president.
Before the mid-term elections on 6 November 2018, the topic of a “possible US civil war” once again began to gain momentum in the Russian press, but now it was associated with a possible victory for the Democrats or with protests by them in the event of their defeat. At the same time, it was clear from the tone of the publications in the Russian media that they were counting on complete victory for the Republicans, an angry reaction to which by the Democrats was apparently supposed to increase instability.
However, the expectations of most Russian analysts and propagandists were not fulfilled: the Democrats confidently won a majority in the lower house and, although they lost the Senate elections, their losses there were not major. Trump’s opponents now have the opportunity to block his legislative initiatives and will also be able to initiate investigations against the president. In addition, the leadership and composition of the Intelligence Committee is now changing, which will allow the American intelligence community to act more freely. Trump still has the opportunity to appoint people to senior positions in the administration and the judicial system, and his candidates will obviously be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. Despite all this, neither of the parties have showed any desire to start a civil war.
Russian media have responded to the congressional elections somewhat reservedly, mostly trying to present Trump’s first serious defeat as a victory. They mainly focused on the Republicans holding on to the Senate. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, called the election results “a vote of confidence in the policies of US President Donald Trump” and “a kind of indicator of support for his positions.”
At the same time, Slutsky complains that Moscow will not be able to get rid of the investigation into Russian interference.
“Political speculation has not ended; Trump’s opponents still have the anti-Russian card up their sleeve. Because of this, unfortunately, no radical changes in Russian-American relations can be expected, he laments.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council International Committee, tried to convince the audience that Trump’s partial defeat would only harm the American system.
“I’m afraid that ultimately the losers will be the American political system, which will become even more unbalanced and unpredictable, even as far as attempts to launch impeachment proceedings, and the part of the world that voluntarily or unwittingly depends on American internal political clashes,” he stated.
At the same time, Kosachev noted that a victory in the Senate “gives considerable cards to the White House,” and without it, “Trump’s foreign policy would be completely paralyzed.” However, like Slutsky, he is worried that the Democrats will head the commissions to investigate Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
In this context, it’s interesting to see yet another article by Mikhail Taratuta on the divide in American society. Here, unlike in previous articles, he no longer shows obvious support for Trump and does not risk giving him advice on how and whom to strike. This seems to indicate that at least some of the Russian media (and, accordingly, the elites behind them) are beginning to move away from direct support for Trump. The newspaper Gazeta.ru, for example, called the election results a loss for Trump.
However, a new player in Russia has made an unprecedented break with the state’s rhetoric. A political club called “New Orthodoxy” states as its aim uniting various Christian denominations and secular public figures, and says that it supports the ideas of liberalism and Christian democracy,. Some of its members have previously spoken on Radio Liberty, trying to reconcile Christian and liberal values, which in itself is not at all new for both Europe and the post-Soviet space (for example, in Belarus, the Christian Democratic movement presents tough opposition to the government). However, there is another strange aspect. Even before the election, members of this movement began to openly call on the Russian government to “stop supporting Trump.”
People familiar with the current situation in Russia know that even the most sincere and radical opposition members living in Russia do not risk criticising the Kremlin’s foreign policy, and they especially do not risk standing up for the United States. Recognising that Moscow interfered in the American election is a topic both dangerous and unpopular in Russian discourse. Moreover, Christian movements would hardly dare to engage in such freethinking, considering that the Orthodox church has become a major tool of Russian foreign policy. A move like this by the Christian opposition is most likely due to the fact that behind it there is support from a section of the Russian elite that belongs to the ‘system liberals’.
Nevertheless, these timid shoots of departure from the official party line are still marginal, and Kremlin media’s activity in supporting Donald Trump in one form or another has not yet changed radically. But it is obvious that as the president loses his position in the United States, his loyal Moscow allies will easily abandon him and pretend that they have never had anything in common with him.