As questions over the Trump administration’s contacts with Russia roil U.S. politics, the Kremlin is taking a decidedly measured approach, carefully weighing what it says to avoid jeopardizing a chance for better relations between Moscow and Washington.
This same patience is evident in Russian state media, helping to temper public expectations of the man who entered the White House with a friendly posture toward President Vladimir Putin.
Opinion polls have shown that the initial public euphoria in Russia after President Donald Trump’s victory has given way to a more sober mood.
Last week, Putin used a visit by the president of Slovenia to raise the possibility of meeting Trump in the homeland of his wife, Melania. But he acknowledged it will take time for Trump to finish forming his team before both sides can set a time and place for such a summit.
“No one here is losing patience, because there haven’t been any excessive expectations,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “No one expected Trump to make some incredible moves on the Russian track in two or three weeks. Things here are viewed from a far more pessimistic, temporizing perspective.”
State-controlled broadcasters have dampened public anticipation of a warming in Russia-U.S. ties with daily reporting on a host of challenges for Trump, including the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Yelena Sizova, a 47-year-old teacher, said she believes any possible steps toward a rapprochement with the U.S. will be blocked by Trump’s foes in Congress.
“My feeling is that we won’t get anything good from him,” she said.
Russia-U.S. relations plunged to their lowest point in decades under former President Barack Obama because of the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and the allegations of Russia’s hacking of the Democrats.
Compared with Hillary Clinton’s hawkish tone on Russia during the campaign, Trump’s promises to repair relations and cooperate with Moscow on fighting international terrorism have fueled expectations of a positive change.
Baunov argues it’s wrong to assert that there is widespread adulation of Trump among ordinary Russians.
“There is no great enthusiasm about him; there is just a feeling of relief,” he said. “While in the United States he is perceived as a conduit of Russian influence, no one in Russia sees him as such.”
Maria Katasonova, a pro-Kremlin political activist, said many Russians shuddered at the prospect of a Clinton victory because they hold her responsible for the breakdown in ties as secretary of state.
“Her policy has led to the worst period in Russia-U.S. relations since the Cold War,” Katasonova said. “That’s why people have pinned big hopes on Trump. The Russians who are interested in politics and geopolitics see Trump as a person with whom it will be possible to try to improve relations between our countries.”
But even as Putin and his lieutenants hope for warmer ties with the U.S., they are fully aware of the strong resistance in Congress and U.S. political circles.
Members of the Russian political elite reacted with apparent shock to Flynn’s resignation. He stepped down after allegations he had discussed the sanctions in place against Russia with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington prior to Trump’s inauguration.
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insists the problem was not that Flynn had the conversations but the fact that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the content. That led to an unsustainable erosion of trust, Spicer said.
Flynn, who once sat next to Putin at a Kremlin gala dinner, was seen by many as someone who was friendly to Russia.
Konstantin Kosachev, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said that “even a readiness for a dialogue with the Russians is perceived by the hawks in Washington as ‘thoughtcrime,’” using a reference from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
He added that Flynn’s departure signaled that Trump has been either driven into a corner or that “Russophobia” is starting to permeate his administration.
The Kremlin took a neutral tone, describing Flynn’s resignation as internal business in the U.S.
Carnegie’s Baunov said the Flynn case demonstrated that any attempt by Trump to reach out to Russia would be cast by his opponents as a “deal with the devil.”
“Trump’s administration will face criticism and punishment for any rapprochement with Russia,” he said, warning that it will be hard for Trump to change that attitude.
During the main weekly news program on Rossiya state television on Sunday night, anchor Dmitry Kiselyov portrayed an embattled Trump being besieged on all sides. The show included an excerpt from “Saturday Night Live” mocking Trump.
“They start pummeling Trump even before he makes a decision,” he said.
Other channels carried similar notes of compassion, describing Trump as surrounded by unforgiving enemies who oppose any rapprochement with Russia.
The message seems to have resonated with the public.
A nationwide survey of 1,600 people conducted last month by the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster, had 46 percent of respondents expecting an improvement of Russia-U.S. ties under Trump, compared with 54 percent in November. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Following the media, many Russians now fear that those in the U.S. who are bent on opposing Russia will force Trump’s hand.
“They won’t let him do what he wants,” said Karim Kasachev, a 31-year-old security specialist. “Russia is a tempting target for them all.”
Many still hope Trump will prevail over his political foes and fulfill his promise of mending the rift with Moscow.
Vladimir Lyashenko, a retired military officer, said he admires Trump for his ability to stand up to his opponents.
“The thing I like most in him is that he is seeing his program through,” Lyashenko said. “He fears no one, no matter how hard they push him.”
He said Trump’s rugged determination makes him hope he would eventually succeed in forging friendly ties with Russia.
“He said that he wants to improve ties with Russia, and he will do so even though lawmakers will be putting a wrench in the spokes,” Lyashenko said.