MOSCOW — A striking change came over Moscow just hours after Donald Trump’s surprise election: Suddenly, the Russian capital was a hotbed of zealous supporters of the U.S. electoral process.
Throughout the campaign, Russia rooted for Trump as much as any other foreign country. According to the White House, Moscow also interfered as much as any other foreign country ever has in a U.S. election. But the Kremlin’s commentators — convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win — had also trashed the U.S. election as dirty, corrupt and unable to produce a legitimate result.
Now that their man was in, and with Russian TV showing cheery Americans lining up to vote for Trump, they had to change their tune.
“This is a great day for American democracy,” gushed pro-Kremlin ideologue Sergei Markov at breakfast at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow. “We have to respect American democracy.”
Public gloating aside, the long-term implications of a Trump presidency for the Kremlin are unclear. The two countries share years of bad blood and a basket of geopolitical grievances. A shortened list includes the conflict in Syria, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S. economic sanctions and a military buildup on both sides of Russia’s border with NATO. In just one night recently, NATO warplanes intercepted Russian jets 13 times.
Is a change of presidents going to make all that go away? Despite Trump’s promises to seek warmer relations, the warier commentators and officials in Moscow were skeptical.
“They're drinking in the Kremlin now,” said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow. But he predicted that the jubilation could soon fade. “We'll see what happens later.”
Wednesday’s celebrations here didn’t dwell on all that. Instead, there was glee over the rejection of a Hillary Clinton presidency that many Russians figured would bring more of the same: a torrent of American criticism that the pro-Kremlin crowd sees as “Russophobia.”
For them, America’s election of Trump was cause for a rare lovefest.
“Today I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Kremlin-owed RT news channel, a day after she tweeted “Democracy. R.I.P.” in expectation of a Clinton win.
Lawmakers at the Russian State Duma — an entirely loyal body dominated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, — burst into thunderous applause when they learned that democracy had been served overseas.
“Tonight is a night of Trump for all Americans and the world,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of an ultranationalist faction at the Duma whose leader invited journalists for a champagne toast. Citing President Obama’s 2008 slogan, he added, “Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump: Yes we did.”
As for the “we” part, Putin has repeatedly denied that Russia was interfering with the U.S. elections, although he has allowed that leaks of hacked Democratic Party emails benefited the public. (Markov, the unofficial Kremlin adviser, suggested Wednesday that Russia “may have helped” WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that published the emails, but he did not specify how he knew or what that meant.)
Putin’s denial didn’t stop Russians from having fun with the idea that their leaders just might have swung the election of the leader of the free world.
“It turns out that the United Russia has won the elections in the United States!” Russian media quoted Viktor Nazarov, governor of the Omsk region, as telling a meeting.
“Judging by the hysterics in West, Vladimir Putin has won the U.S. elections,” pro-Kremlin satirist Mikhail Zadornov said on Twitter, where the Russian-language hashtag “RussiachoosesTrump” was gaining traction.
In a poll on the Echo of Moscow, the radio station asked its listeners, “Did Putin have a hand in Trump's victory?” While 60 percent answered no on Wednesday night, 32 percent, nearly 6,000 people, responded “yes.”
Putin, not surprisingly, made no mention of the interference allegations in his congratulatory words to Trump Wednesday, instead focusing on Trump's promising words during the campaign about restoring relations.
“We understand that this will not be an easy path,” Putin said. And he should know, because the laundry list of demands he made as conditions for restoring relations is daunting. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dispelled any notion that things would change right away, saying Putin had no plans to call Trump.
In other former republics of the Soviet Union, particularly those in conflict with Russia like Ukraine and the Baltics, there were expressions of foreboding in contrast to Moscow's delight.
Markov, the ideologue, said he doubted Trump would accede to all of Russia's demands — ending sanctions, compensating Moscow for the losses caused by them, recognizing the annexation of Crimea — but he did expect progress.
He nevertheless worried about Trump's personal leadership style, gleaned from watching “The Apprentice” as well as the campaign.
“He is macho. Putin also is macho,” Markov said. “He said he wants to have good relations. But maybe they will clash.”
Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report.
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