Chaos engulfing Trump stirs anxiety in Russia over US ties
By ILYA ARKHIPOV, EVGENIA PISMENNAYA AND HENRY MEYER | Bloomberg | Published: May 19, 2017
The Kremlin is growing increasingly unhappy at being in the center of U.S. political storms that threaten to knock President Donald Trump off course.
As Washington buzzes with talk of possible impeachment after a special counsel was appointed to investigate alleged links between Trump's election campaign and Russia, officials in Moscow are fretting that the tycoon-turned-politician will be so engulfed by political crises at home that he'll have no chance to form a normal working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump's presidency appears hijacked by the U.S. obsession with Russia, one senior Kremlin official said. Four months into his term, after an election victory greeted with euphoria in Moscow, his fate looks increasingly uncertain to Kremlin policy makers, two other people familiar with the matter said. All asked not to be identified discussing internal issues.
U.S. media often present Russian interference in the 2016 election as a victory for Putin in undermining his country's principal adversary. But for the Kremlin, the continuing furor makes it impossible to get business done with the U.S. on key issues ranging from resolving the war in Syria to lobbying for an end to sanctions over the Ukrainian conflict.
"Hope is slowly draining away," said Fyodor Lukyanov, who runs the Foreign & Defense Policy Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin. It will be "totally impossible to have any dealings" with the U.S. if Trump is impeached and replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, who's "very conservative and fairly aggressive" toward Russia, he said.
Putin frequently uses dark humor in response to the unfolding crisis in the U.S. He quipped to reporters in Sochi on Wednesday that he'd reprimand Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for not sharing secrets supposedly gained at Oval Office talks with Trump last week. Feeding the U.S. image of Russian self-satisfaction, Time Magazine's latest cover shows the White House being swallowed up by the Kremlin's red brick walls and the onion domes of St. Basil's cathedral.
But Putin also admitted the joke's wearing thin as he attacked "political schizophrenia" gripping Washington and rejected U.S. media reports that Trump disclosed confidential intelligence to Lavrov. The turmoil in Washington "made us laugh" at first, "today it's not just sad, it's a matter of concern," he said.
There's a view in Moscow that "given the difficult position Trump is in, there may be no point in going ahead with serious dialogue," said Andrei Kortunov, who runs the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. "It'll create more headaches for Trump and it's not clear that he won't become a lame duck."
Trump isn't being allowed to develop policy because meetings with Russian diplomats are "viewed as nearly a crime" for U.S. officials in Washington, which now more resembles a "madhouse" than the House of Cards TV drama, Andrey Kostin, chief executive officer of state-owned VTB Bank, the country's second-largest lender, said in a CNBC interview on Friday. "I don't know what these people want -- a nuclear war between the two superpowers or what?"
There's little chance of improving relations for now because of a "paranoid attitude" in the U.S. "to every single contact with Russia, real or imagined," Herman Gref, chief executive officer of state-owned Sberbank PJSC, the country's biggest bank, said in a separate CNBC interview.
Putin and Trump may meet for the first time at the July 7-8 Group of 20 summit in Germany. Russia pinned high hopes on Trump after U.S. ties sank to a post-Cold War low under President Barack Obama following Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Trump praised Putin repeatedly during the campaign, hinted he may end U.S. sanctions over Ukraine, and pledged to work with Russia in fighting Islamic State in Syria. The Kremlin's eager to involve the U.S. in its plans to set up safe zones in Syria to help resolve the six-year war, after confrontation with Obama over Russian backing for Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Hours after Putin spoke in Sochi, the Department of Justice named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the bureau's investigation. Trump, who's dismissed the controversy as "fake news," said "a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity."
Even so, there's a growing sense in Russia that Trump's opponents in the U.S. political establishment are determined to oust him, said Oleg Morozov, a former senior Kremlin official who now serves on the international affairs committee of the upper house of Russia's parliament.
"The war against him will go on until the last bullet," Morozov said.
While Russia assumed Trump would impose his authority on Washington within six months, the situation hasn't improved, a top Kremlin official said. With even routine events such as Lavrov's Washington visit creating a firestorm, it's impossible to do any real business and things will only get worse, the official said.
Fears of Trump's impeachment are rising, according to Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. "In Moscow, there are people who take that possibility seriously," he said.
Bloomberg's Stepan Kravchenko contributed.