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Following National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation, there is clearly an awareness among President Donald Trump’s team of a political need to distance the administration from its perceived pro-Russian stance towards sanctions relief.
This distancing tactic seems to consist of making decisive statements about Ukraine by emphasising something Trump, as a candidate, did not link with any ‘deal’ on sanctions.
Thus, although White House spokesman Sean Spicer reiterated Trump’s desire to get along with Russia, he also said that ‘President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea’.
Similarly, at the Munich Security Conference which concluded this weekend, US Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the need for Russia to honour the Minsk agreement and de-escalate violence in Ukraine. At the same time, he emphasised the need to search for common ground in relations.
And even Trump himself tweeted on the subject, albeit with a dig at his predecessor, ‘Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?’ tweeted the president.
Trump as an individual seems to be more consistent in his views. In last week’s press conference, Trump reiterated his belief that Flynn had not done anything wrong by discussing sanctions with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the US.
Instead, the US President believes that ‘fake news’ is preventing him from achieving his foreign policy aim of cooperating with Russian President Vladimir Putin by making it ‘much harder to make a deal with Russia’.
The idea that circumstances beyond the two leaders’ control conspire to keep them apart was also reiterated in a direct Trump message to the leadership of Russia, with Trump stating, ‘I think Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal’.
Still, have Flynn’s departure and a change in the public tone of White House officials dampened hopes in Moscow that Trump will bring a genuine change to the US–Russia policy, and particularly sanctions relief?
A degree of scepticism is seeping into Russian media commentaries and statements. One article from tabloid Moskovskiy Komsomolets discussed how Trump’s press conference demonstrated the impotence of the president to change the Russia-US relationship.
It said that ‘it is too early for Russia to write Trump off completely. But it is time to stop our “love affair” with Trump’. Duma MP Leonid Slutsky, of the far right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, echoed this sentiment, saying ‘we too early on decided … that he [Trump] was some kind of pro-Russian – he is pro-American’.
The Kremlin will also, no doubt, be anticipating any need to shift the domestic narrative away from the idea of Trump as a potential ally. Although Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied this, Russian sources have told the Bloomberg news agency that Moscow has ordered state media to cut back on flattering coverage of Trump.
This may reflect concerns that the new US Administration will not be as friendly as before. However, if true, it is also likely due to the fact that in January, Trump received more mentions in the Russian media than Putin. This is not something the Russian leader may tolerate for long.
Despite this, there are signs of some strategic patience in Moscow, in the sense that many are blaming the US political system, rather than Trump, for conspiring to block his otherwise admirable desire to improve the relationship.
On Flynn’s resignation, Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov tweeted that the ‘target was not Flynn but relations with Russia’.
The head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (upper house) Konstantin Kosachev said ‘either Trump has not gained the desired independence and he is being consistently (and not unsuccessfully) pushed into a corner, or Russophobia has already engulfed the new administration from top to bottom’.
The message seems to be that, while Trump himself is not yet to blame, the extent of his power and influence on US policy is a source of Russia’s concern.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, his defeated electoral opponent, Trump is unpredictable – something that many in the West view that Russia has taken pride in having the upper hand on in international affairs since 2014.
The White House seems to be falling in line with European allies on some security issues, but Trump still speaks of a ‘deal’ with Russia, which makes things doubly unclear as far as Moscow is concerned.
Ultimately, it seems, Moscow is hedging. Russia still needs to keep alert. In the past few weeks, press reported that a Russian spy ship was detected in international waters off the coast of Connecticut, Russian fighter jets buzzed a US warship in the Black Sea.
There have also been further allegations that Russia has violated its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty obligations by deploying a land-based cruise missile. Although this behaviour is not new, Russia still sees the value in its strategic messaging.
Another Russian strategic messaging that will be worth noting is the decision on the appointment of a new Russian Ambassador to the US. Anatoliy Antonov, former deputy Defence Minister and recently appointed deputy Foreign Minister, previously appeared to be the front-runner.
However, recent reports raised some doubts about this, with Russian officials saying no decision had yet been made.
Antonov would be significant, not only because of his hard line on the West in relation to foreign and defence policy issues but also because he is on the EU sanctions list.
Allegedly, he was chosen to be sent to Washington in the autumn of last year, when Moscow still believed that Clinton would win, but now the Kremlin’s calculations may be different.
The new ambassador will no doubt be an important indicator of Russia’s feeling on either a friendly or provocative approach towards the new president, and it is not clear how long Russia’s strategic patience will last.
Banner image: Russian Su-24 aircraft flying close to the destroyer USS Porter in the Black Sea in early February. Is Moscow testing Trump? Courtesy of US Navy.