MOSCOW — A funny thing happened in Russia this past week: President Trump’s face, once ubiquitous on the talk shows and evening news programs that tack closely to the Kremlin’s political agenda, was suddenly absent. Gone.
“Like they flipped a switch,” said Alexey Kovalev, a journalist at the Moscow Times who covers Russian state media.
It’s not hard to guess why. Engulfed in scandal over contacts between senior aides and Russian officials, the Trump administration has sought to put daylight between itself and the Kremlin.
In a single week, Washington has complained that Russia is violating a 1987 nuclear treaty and accused the Kremlin of meddling in foreign elections. Scandal has forced out a national security adviser sympathetic to Moscow. Trump’s tone has seemed to harden on issues such as Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
For the Russians, it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
U.S. intelligence agencies say that Russian hackers directed by President Vladimir Putin sought to put Trump in the White House instead of Hillary Clinton, seeing the New York businessman as far friendlier to Moscow’s interests. The Kremlin denies the charge.
If it’s true, what did it get the Russians? Moscow bristled this week when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Washington should negotiate with Russia from a “position of strength.” It could have been just another day under the Obama administration.
“There is disappointment for many people,” said Vladimir Posner, a prominent Russian television journalist who hosts an interview program on Channel One Russia. “Along with disappointment comes anger. Why did [Trump] lie to us? Why did he make us think that he wants things to get better?”
Trump’s election brought euphoria to Moscow. Partly that came from the defeat of Clinton, a nemesis of Putin. But it also reflected the promise of a Trump administration: a chance to hammer out deals with a U.S. president who would allow Russia to consolidate power in its region and edge back toward great power status.
Some of the tough U.S. talk toward Russia reflects the fact that American military and diplomatic officials continue to reflect their standard positions — like the allegation that Russia has been violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Russia denies the charge).
As the scandals swirl in Washington, however, Trump has also changed his tone, which was warmer toward Russia during the presidential campaign. Just last August, Trump told ABC’s “This Week” that he would “look at” the 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea by Russia, adding that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
But on Wednesday, Trump tweeted: “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday that the president expected Russia to return Crimea, a position held by the Obama administration and its European allies.
Meanwhile, several congressional committees are launching investigations into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign aides, making it more difficult for the new U.S. president to change course on policy toward Moscow.
Is Russia’s honeymoon with Trump over?
The Kremlin’s line is that the honeymoon never existed. Senior Putin administration figures have been far more restrained than Russian lawmakers or other officials in their public statements about Trump, saying they welcomed a change in rhetoric but did not expect a fire sale of the United States’ national interests.
Rather than being attacked for his tougher stance on Russia, Trump has largely been tuned out here. His statements about Crimea have been chalked up to pressure from political opponents. Before the election, Putin and his aides said that an entrenched Washington establishment would try to stop Trump from building stronger ties with Moscow. Now, some say that has come to pass.
“The disappointment is with the scandals that have accompanied the Trump administration and the scale of war that is being conducted against it by Congress, by the media, by the political establishment and the foreign policy establishment,” said Dmitry Suslov, a professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. “The pressure limits the administration for now.”
But even if the Trump administration becomes hostile to Russia, Moscow wouldn’t be much worse off than with a Clinton administration, he added.
In the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, there were champagne toasts to Trump on the morning after his election. Now that euphoria is gone. Vyacheslav Volodin, a former close Putin aide who is speaker of the parliament, complained this past week that Trump was not fulfilling his campaign promises on Russia. And a Russian senator claimed that Russophobia was so rampant in Washington that openness to dialogue was tantamount to a “thoughtcrime” from George Orwell’s “1984.”
On Russian TV news programs, there has been little interest in the scandals surrounding the reported contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials. Those communications included the phone calls between Michael Flynn, who was ousted as national security adviser last week, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. The two reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia.
The Russian media reports have also not mentioned recent actions viewed as Russian provocations by U.S. politicians, including the reported buzzing of a U.S. warship in the Black Sea by Russian fighter planes.
Trump’s sudden disappearance from the airwaves is probably not by chance.
Konstantin Eggert, a television journalist, reported on Wednesday that a colleague at the state media agency VGTRK had received a directive from the station executives: “No more Trump.” Later Bloomberg News, citing unidentified sources, said the Kremlin had told state news agencies to “cut back on their fawning coverage” of Trump.
Eggert said he believed that the Kremlin had decided to reduce attention paid to Trump because of the growing pressure on the U.S. president and the unlikelihood of a breakthrough in relations anytime soon.
“Boosting expectations based on imminent U.S.-Russia rapprochement is unwise for the Kremlin, as these expectations cannot be fulfilled,” Eggert said in an interview. “So the Kremlin propaganda machine will switch gears to decrease coverage of the U.S. and Trump in particular until the situation is clearer.”
Eggert said he didn’t think the Kremlin was particularly stung by Trump’s increased coolness toward Russia.
“I think Putin has been ready for a long time to accept that things may not change quickly, if at all,” he added.
The Kremlin denied the reports that it had dictated media policy. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, called it “yet more fake news.”
Trump made clear at a news conference on Thursday that he believed that the outcry over his aides’ communications with Russia had affected relations with the country.
The news coverage “makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia,” Trump said. “And probably Putin said . . . ‘You know, I see what’s going on in the United States, I follow it closely. It’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.’”
The Kremlin might not have expected a dramatic shift in relations in the early days of the Trump administration, unlike some lawmakers. But that doesn’t mean it expected so little.
“The decision-makers were probably less prone to feel very positive about Trump’s being elected, but nonetheless they certainly had hopes,” Posner said. “These hopes certainly seem to be being dashed.”