News analysis

Russia cooling its ardour for Trump

Moscow recalibrates its moves amid hints of anti-Russian sentiment in Washington

When Mr Donald Trump won the US presidential election, Russians from all walks of life were ecstatic. "In God We Trump" read a joyful, English-language headline in Kommersant, Russia's top financial daily.

Deputies in the Duma, the Lower House of Parliament, stood up and applauded. And US citizens in the Russian capital were offered a 10 per cent discount in shops, a spontaneous gesture from people who believed that, after almost a century of what Russians perceived as unremitting hostility from the United States, Russia was finally about to get a friend in the White House.

A month into the Trump presidency, however, there are strong indications that Moscow's eager anticipation of the new administration has been replaced by grave doubts about the future of US-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin not only has failed to secure an early meeting with Mr Trump, but also has yet to get such a meeting into the diary of the US President.

Russian officials have always denied accusations that they were behind the hacking of computers belonging to Mr Trump's Democratic opponents during the electoral campaign with the objective of helping the Republican get elected; "total and gross falsehoods" was how Mr Dmitry Peskov, President Putin's spokesman, dismissed such charges.

Mr Putin himself further waded into the controversy when additional and unsubstantiated allegations surfaced last month that the Russian authorities may have a videotape of Mr Trump's supposed dalliances with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite; "the people making up such stories are worse than prostitutes", a visibly angered Mr Putin told a news conference.

Still, the Russian authorities made no secret of their support for Mr Trump, or of their belief that his election was a vindication of Mr Putin's political vision, a popular revolt against complacent political elites, permissive social mores and the forces of globalisation - precisely the supposed ills which Mr Putin had identified.

The fact that Mr Trump filled his Cabinet with wealthy businessmen was also portrayed in Moscow as confirmation of the validity of the Russian political system, in which a handful of oligarchs run the show.

For the moment, Russian officials are still hedging their bets, refraining from attacking President Trump directly, while expressing their displeasure with Russia-bashers in Washington. Yet, behind the scenes, Mr Putin is also preparing a fall-back position.

Either way, the praise lavished on Mr Trump was unprecedented: According to a study by Interfax, a Russian news agency, the name of the American President was mentioned 55,000 times more than that of Mr Putin in Russia's domestic media coverage during the past month alone, an astonishing figure in a country where the Russian leader enjoys undivided attention.

All of this is now gone. For although the Russian authorities deny allegations that an official edict was issued to tone down on pro-Trump coverage, the fact is that this is precisely what has happened. The Internet site of Channel One, Russia's most influential TV channel, now hardly contains any mention of Mr Trump. Meanwhile, supporters of NOD, a far-right Russian nationalist movement, were allowed to stage protests demanding an end to the "Trump cult" in their country.

And criticism of the new US President is suddenly surfacing in the otherwise controlled Russian media.  

"We are realists, Comrade Trump," remarked top commentator Irada Zeinalova of NTV, another popular local TV channel, in an ironic reference to the limits of the US-Russia friendship.

Russia Today, or RT as the top government-financed overseas broadcaster is now known, went even further, by recently airing speculation that Mr Trump's presidency may be short because he could be impeached.

The resignation of Mr Michael Flynn, President Trump's national security adviser, because he allegedly concealed the nature of his contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington, alerted Russian leaders to the fact that, for the Trump administration, friendship with Russia is now a political liability.

So were the remarks of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who told participants at last week's Munich Security Conference that 2017 is "going to be the year of kicking Russia in the ass"; that is interpreted in Moscow as proof that US-Russia relations are becoming a proxy for a bigger showdown between the White House and Congress.

For the moment, Russian officials are still hedging their bets, refraining from attacking President Trump directly, while expressing their displeasure with Russia-bashers in Washington.

Yet, behind the scenes, Mr Putin is also preparing a fall-back position.

Russian-supported separatist rebels in Ukraine have recently intensified their offensive against Ukrainian government forces. And in a defiant move calculated to annoy Washington, Moscow has just announced that it will recognise the "passports" of the self-proclaimed rebel enclaves in Ukraine as valid travel documents, one step away from making Ukraine's break-up irreversible, at least as far as Russia is concerned.

The none-too-subtle message from Moscow is that Mr Trump's administration cannot prevaricate: It will have to either opt for friendship or more confrontation with Russia, but it will have to make a choice soon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Russia cooling its ardour for Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe