Kremlin-funded Russian state television has openly sided with Trump throughout the Ukraine scandal and even during the events that led up to it. For months on end, Dmitry , the host of a Sunday news show called “Vesti Nedeli” (or “The Weekly News”) on state-controlled television station Rossiya-24, encouraged Trump’s push for a Ukrainian investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as the groundless theory that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
Kiselyov surmised in September that Trump’s pursuit of the Ukrainian investigations was motivated by his “burning desire” to “dig up some kompromat” against Biden, who Russian state media deems to be Trump’s “most dangerous opponent.” Kiselyov candidly described such pursuits as a part of Trump’s reelection campaign, opining: “Trump urgently needs some compromising evidence against Biden, and by extension against the entire Democratic Party. In this sense, potentially the sweetest thing for Trump can be unearthed in Ukraine — proving that not Russia but Ukraine interfered in the last presidential election in the United States.”
Along with Trump and his Republican supporters, Russian President Vladimir Putin has seemed flustered that the potentially impeachable activities of the American president were exposed from within. Appearing on a panel at Russian Energy Week in early October, Putin commiserated: “They began with this impeachment proceeding. And they always recall Nixon. Nixon’s team was wiretapping, listening to their rivals, but this is a completely different situation — Trump was wiretapped! Some anonymous special service staffer leaked this information. And based on what we know from the call, there was nothing wrong there.” Russian state media followed the lead of the GOP in calling for the unmasking of the whistleblower. “It’s time to talk about treason of the anonymous spy,” exclaimed , as the Kremlin-funded media rushed starting Oct. 31 to unveil the identity of the purported whistleblower.
When the cameras are not rolling, even the most ardent Kremlin propagandists admit that in fact, the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was far from “perfect.” After reviewing the incomplete transcript of the call, Evgeny Popov, the host of “60 Minutes,” the most popular news talk show in Russia, tweeted: “Brutal. That’s exactly what happened. Trump demanded. Zelensky obediently agreed. Both of them are finished.” But on-air and on-camera, the approach is markedly different and inevitably favors Trump. Appearing on “60 Minutes” a couple of weeks ago, Maria Shteinman, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who specializes in communications, said the partial transcript of the call bears the classic hallmarks of manipulation and pressure, applied by the U.S. president toward his Ukrainian counterpart. Not so, insisted Popov: “It’s just a coincidence.”
Russian state media and government officials are carefully avoiding any admissions of culpability on Trump’s part. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed earlier this fall that the Ukraine scandal was caused “by the implosion of the Mueller investigation” and not by Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. The state-controlled newspaper Izvestia alleged that the publication of the rough transcript of the call had disproved the suspicions of Trump’s opponents, as it supposedly did not contain any evidence Zelensky was pressured to open investigations into the Bidens. Kiselyov’s “Vesti Nedeli” defended the U.S. president: “Trump went ahead and published the transcript of the call. There’s nothing there.”
Reporting for Rossiya-24, Valentin Bogdanov pondered whether Trump should fire acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney “for selling everyone down the river” with his explicit admission of a quid pro quo. Russian state media is convinced the impeachment inquiry is doomed to failure. The lineup of Rossiya-24 experts concurred: “Trump’s impeachment is impossible.” The co-host of “60 Minutes,” Olga Skabeeva, predicted: “A Republican majority in the Senate won’t allow the president whom we elected, wonderful Donald Trump, to be sent off. It’s impossible. He has 90 percent support in the Republican Party.”
Russia’s outpouring of support for Trump is far from altruistic. Russian state media often notes how beneficial the Trump presidency has proved to be for the Kremlin. As the United States withdraws from the Middle East, questions the benefits of transatlantic alliances and becomes more embroiled in domestic affairs, Russia continues to advance. In an article for the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, Mikhail Rostovsky described the consequences of the rushed withdrawal of U.S. forces out of northern Syria as “Russia’s unexpected triumph in the Middle East” and a “lottery win” for Putin. The Kremlin is steadily expanding its influence across Europe, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps most importantly, the impeachment scandal revealed Trump’s distaste for Ukraine, the crown jewel of Russia’s desired sphere of influence. During the deposition of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff asked: “From the perspective of Russia, are there many issues, many neighbors, of as great a significance to Russia as Ukraine? Vindman replied: “No … Russia with Ukraine is a power. Russia without Ukraine is a regional player.” On Wednesday, Russian state media used quotes from the live testimony of William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to argue Trump’s interest in Ukraine is limited to obtaining “the dirt on Bidens.” Russian state media is playing up Trump’s reported “hatred toward Ukraine,” warning the Ukrainians they ultimately risk being abandoned by the United States “just like the Kurds” and urging Russia’s beleaguered neighbor to come back “under the nuclear shield” of the Kremlin’s protection.
Denis Davydov of Rossiya-1 urged Americans to stock up on popcorn. Reaping the benefits of the scandalous Trump presidency, the Kremlin is practically giddy. When asked about concerns Russia might interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections, Putin joked in early October: “I’ll tell you a secret: Yes, we’ll definitely do it.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined in the fun by promising to “solve the problem” with the coming presidential elections. Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, recently testified that the Russians often send signals to their foreign counterparts “publicly through the press and through press articles — that’s the way that they operate.” In this case, the message is clear: The Kremlin is feeling invincible.