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After a year of Trump, Russians are still waiting for the thaw

Russian politician Vladi­mir Zhirinovsky, in white shirt, celebrates Donald Trump’s unexpected victory Nov. 9, 2016, in Moscow. (Kommersant Photo/Kommersant via Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky still fondly remembers the time he says a Russian official working at the United Nations arranged a meeting for him with Donald Trump.

"He understood that the way Russia is portrayed in the American press does not correspond to reality," Zhirinovsky said of Trump, recalling the 2002 meeting in New York. "He understood that we were even better than the Americans."

But as Russia takes stock of Year One of the Trump presidency, the pundits and politicians here who predicted a sea change in relations with the United States increasingly are concluding that they bet wrong. The first year in the White House of the most pro-Russian major-party presidential nominee in recent history has brought U.S.-Russian relations to an even lower point than before Trump took office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to agree with President Trump on a number of topics at his year end news conference on Dec. 14. (Video: Joyce Lee, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

"I thought there would be a revolution," said Zhirinovsky, who hosted a champagne reception in the Russian parliament after Trump won. "We could not possibly have foreseen all that happened." 

In his campaign, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin "very smart." But in Trump's first year as president, his administration has doubled down on President Barack Obama's support for Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists and gone along with congressional sanctions against Russia.

The result: a civics lesson for those Russians who thought that the U.S. president could wield as much influence as their own. The state news media, pro-Kremlin politicians and many commentators now accuse the Washington establishment and the U.S. media of spinning a fiction about Russian election interference and blocking Trump from carrying out his promise of a friendlier policy toward Moscow. 

Putin told reporters last month that Trump has not been able to improve relations with Russia "even if he wanted to, because of the obvious constraints." His press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the state of U.S.-Russian relations the main disappointment of 2017.

"This is a president whose hands are tied," Valery Garbuzov, director of the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said at a roundtable on Trump's first year hosted by a Russian state news agency. Using a phrase that is a favorite in Russian political circles, he added, "The Russian political elite saw the U.S. president as being at the top of a vertical of power, as we have it here."

One bellwether is Zhirinovsky, a presidential candidate and longtime firebrand who revels in racially charged and xenophobic rhetoric. Russians often ridicule him for his outrageous statements, but he supports Putin and is one of the most prominent voices in Russian politics.

In an interview, Zhirinovsky said he wanted to meet prominent Americans, preferably politicians, when he visited New York in 2002. But a Russian official working at the United Nations, Vladimir Grachev, arranged a meeting for Zhirinovsky with Trump instead. Zhirinovsky said that in the meeting, he tried to persuade Trump to build a development in Moscow and offered to help with contacts in the city government. 

"He was the only one who agreed to meet with me," Zhirinovsky said. "Trump apparently was already on the radar screen as someone who traveled to Moscow and didn't refuse meetings with those who arrived in New York." 

Grachev, now the deputy administrative head of Russia's Central Election Commission, confirmed in a phone interview that he arranged the 2002 meeting as a favor for Zhirinovsky, whom he had long known. Grachev said that he did so in a one-off, informal capacity and that it came together thanks to a mutual acquaintance of Grachev's and Trump's: Tamir Sapir, a Soviet-born real estate developer who had lived in Trump Tower and who died in 2014. 

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Two months after Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, Russian newspapers were already quoting Zhirinovsky as a Trump supporter. "We need Trump!" he shouted on a prime-time talk show the following year, in September 2016. "We need to fight for a Trump victory!" And after Trump did win, Zhirinovsky hoisted a plastic cup of champagne in parliament and delivered a toast to "a rapid improvement in relations between Russia and the United States." 

A year into Trump's term, that improvement is nowhere in sight. By the end of the month, the U.S. Treasury is expected to release a list of Russian business executives close to the Kremlin — part of legislation responding to Russian election interference enacted by Congress over the summer. Being on the list is not tantamount to being hit with sanctions, but it probably will carry a stigma.

Trump has given his go-ahead for the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine for use against ­Russian-backed separatists, a step Obama avoided. And the new U.S. National Security Strategy, which the White House released last month, names Russia alongside China as challenging "American power, influence, and interests."

"If [Hillary] Clinton had won, then the whole elite of the U.S. wouldn't be so set against us," said Zhirinovsky.

But for all the hand-wringing in Moscow about the breakdown in U.S.-Russian ties, there is less discussion of what many Americans would say is one of the biggest factors in that disintegration: the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion, which the Kremlin rejects, that Russian operatives interfered in the American election. In the 90-minute roundtable discussion of Trump's first year, the topic barely came up.

"Not only at the top but also in society, most [Russian] people a year later don't recognize how important a question this is for the United States," Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said of the allegations of Russian election interference. 

Zhirinovsky said he does not know whether the interference allegations are true. But even those pro-Kremlin politicians who decisively reject them also sometimes voice satisfaction that more Americans now see Russia as a force that cannot be ignored. 

Obama "called us a nation in ruins that is a small regional power. A year later, people in America are talking about nothing but Russia," said Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament. "The only right lesson out of all this is: Don't pretend that others are dwarves."

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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