President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Helsinki on Monday morning, but before the weekend even started, the Kremlin-controlled state media had already declared an easy victory.
The fact that this top-level tête-à-tête is set to take place provides confirmation that Putin’s Russia was able to end the country’s isolation without giving an inch. The summit was preceded by the recent visit from eight Republican lawmakers, most of whom celebrated the Fourth of July in Moscow. On Russian state television, both of these events have been portrayed as concessions by the United States. Appearing on state TV, Igor Korotchenko, member of the Defense Ministry’s public advisory council, argued that Russia should look down on Americans the same way the Soviet Union did: “You came to us, because you need something.” In an ongoing confrontation with the Russians, America blinked first. The Kremlin is barreling through, with eyes wide open.
Russian state media are hard at work, praising Putin’s strategy that is finally paying off. That is not surprising, as the state media in Russia are fully controlled by the government. Positions conveyed by the Kremlin’s bullhorns reflect only what is considered permissible by the state. On Russian state television, criticism of Putin is unheard of, and mildly dissenting views are allowed mostly so they can be mocked. Government-controlled propaganda, combined with fear of retribution, secure consistently high approval ratings for the seemingly irreplaceable Russian leader. Putin is always portrayed as a masterful chess player whose every move is pure genius. State TV is already providing a preview of Putin’s likely strategy: flatter Trump’s ego and bond over common enemies, blaming past U.S.-Russia tensions on the U.S. “deep state,” the news media and, most of all, President Barack Obama and Trump’s former rival, Hillary Clinton.
Trump has relayed low expectations for the summit: “I think we go into that meeting not looking for so much.” But that’s not the case for the Kremlin. The state media reveals that Putin’s Russia expects everything, in exchange for nothing. Based on Trump’s statements, they predict the impending recognition of the Russian occupation of Crimea and “the creeping removal of sanctions.” They also believe that Trump will withdraw his stated objections to the Nord-Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.
Officially, Russia admits nothing about interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections, but Kremlin-controlled state media is not as reserved in its messages designed for internal consumption. Russian state TV hosts brazenly assert, “Trump is ours,” and joke that the U.S. lawmakers traveled to Russia “to make deals with our hackers, so they can rig the midterms in favor of Trump’s team.” They gleefully anticipate that Putin will run circles around “political neophyte” Trump, “educating” him about world events from the Russian perspective.
A former intelligence operative, Putin is portrayed as a master manipulator, skilled in “studying the mind of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them.” He will likely use camaraderie and flattery with Trump. Since Fox News is known to echo Trump’s point of view, Russian state TV has taken to airing the network’s clips complaining about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s “witch hunt” investigation. Between Fox News and Trump’s own revealing tweets, Putin undoubtedly knows which buttons to push for a maximum advantage.
The key common “enemies” named by Russian state TV are Democrats, “the deep state” and the U.S. media. Clinton and Obama top the list of foes frequently blamed by Russian politicians and state media for everything that is wrong with the world, including the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. Putin will probably use the same talking points to create an illusion of standing alongside Trump against the same opponents.
The Kremlin is also sure to capitalize on Trump’s vanity. Russian state TV experts speculate that Trump’s ego will be satisfied by striking a deal with Russia, just to show that he accomplished something his predecessors couldn’t. Putin’s propaganda networks are already saying that part of the summit will exclude any aides or advisers, repeatedly predicting that “secret verbal deals” will be made. This type of uncertainty presents a golden propaganda opportunity for the Kremlin, not unlike the approach recently taken by Russian state media with the visiting U.S. lawmakers, who agreed to meet with Russian counterparts behind closed doors. The ensuing conflicting reports enabled the Kremlin to portray the U.S. visitors as weak, timid and ready to make concessions.
The Kremlin is not planning to make concessions of its own — a fact that is repeatedly reiterated by Russian state media. Russian politicians and experts point out that the United States, not Russia, is initiating conciliatory efforts. The United States is portrayed as an adversary that realized the futility of past attempts to isolate or punish Russia. The coverage hints that Trump is expected to offer concessions on multiple fronts to normalize relations, letting bygones be bygones.
State media provide a preview of Putin’s likely response to any questions about the Kremlin’s interference in U.S. elections. TV hosts, politicians and experts are quick to point out that none of Mueller’s indictments suggest that Russia changed the ultimate outcome. They also counter-accuse the United States of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. State Duma member Leonid Kalashnikov recently said that every country meddles in others’ elections, to a nervous reaction from both state TV hosts, one of whom noted: “You just admitted our interference.” Fortunately for the Kremlin, Trump tends to downplay the magnitude of any meddling, instead blaming Democrats for pushing the issue. Putin will certainly seize the opportunity to solidify that dismissive mind-set in addressing any questions about the latest set of indictments.
But to Putin-friendly Russian media, there’s no real need to worry about the indictments or whatever discussion Trump plans to have with Putin about hacking. The Kremlin, state TV says, sees the summit as Trump’s explicit attempt to normalize relations with Russia, wiping the slate clean as to any outstanding issues.
After all, state media argue, if Crimea or election interference were important enough, the summit wouldn’t even be happening.