The Kremlin on Tuesday played down the resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a sign that Russia is already looking ahead to talks with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to improve the nations’ strained ties.
Flynn was often perceived as Donald Trump’s key contact with Moscow. In 2015, Flynn appeared at a gala dinner for Russia Today, a Kremlin-funded television station, and even sat next to President Vladimir Putin at the event.
Flynn resigned Monday night after conceding that he gave “incomplete information” about his calls with Russia’s ambassador to U.S. officials.
A U.S. official told journalists that Flynn was in frequent contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day that the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia after U.S. intelligence reported that Russia had interfered with last year’s U.S. election. The Kremlin has confirmed that Flynn has been in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions.
The Russian establishment has not harbored any illusions about the Trump administration’s pro-Russia stance for some time now, said Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
“This infatuation with Trump in Russia is over, and Flynn as a person who has contributed to this infatuation stopped being perceived as a figure who can have a real impact on the U.S. foreign policy,” Makarkin said.
The nomination of Tillerson, former chief executive at ExxonMobil, showed the Russians that he, not Flynn, would be doing the negotiating, Makarkin said.
Ties between Moscow and Washington plummeted to post-Cold War lows after Russia annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States responded with economic sanctions and visa bans.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Flynn’s resignation, saying it’s an internal matter for Trump’s administration and “none of our business.” Asked if Moscow still hopes for its relations with the U.S. to improve, he said it is “too early to say” since “Trump’s team has not been shaped yet.”
The Kremlin earlier said it was not expecting a breakthrough before the two presidents meet in person. Putin has suggested that could take place in Slovenia, the home nation of Trump’s wife, Melania, but added that it will be up to Trump to determine the time and place.
Russia’s visibly muted reaction to Flynn’s departure comes as Tillerson is set to hold his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week. Tillerson, who has sealed multiple deals in Russia and was even decorated with the Russian “Order of Friendship” award, is widely described as a tough negotiator who will not make promises to Russia that he cannot keep.
Still, several senior Russian lawmakers expressed their disappointment over Flynn’s resignation on social media.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the Federation Council, said in a Facebook post that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is “not just paranoia but something even worse.”
Kosachev also expressed frustration with the Trump administration. “Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner… or Russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom,” he wrote.
Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Federation Council, tweeted shortly after the resignation announcement that “it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia.”
By early afternoon, some lawmakers began to retract their original indignant comments, in line with the restrained tone taken by the Kremlin.
Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the State Duma, first described Flynn’s departure as a “negative signal” for Russia-U.S. relations, but two hours later switched to more moderate language, stressing that it “cannot fundamentally influence Russia-U.S. ties.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, a group of Russian foreign policy experts, told the RIA Novosti news agency that it’s not yet clear what impact Flynn’s resignation may have.
“There’s nothing to influence yet, there are no relations as such. Our countries have relations shaped by the former administration, which were awful, and Trump was going to change that,” he said.
Yet Trump’s first telephone call with Putin last month demonstrated that Trump did not have anything to offer to Russia immediately, Makarkin said.
“It has led to a realization that if Flynn wanted to promote better ties with Russia, he would not have the real chance to,” he said.