The United States just elected a president who campaigned on his antipathy for NATO and admiration for Vladimir Putin. His secretary of State is a longtime opponent of sanctions on Russian energy — and the 2012 recipient of Moscow’s Order of Friendship. High-ranking White House officials have evinced more hostility for the European Union than Russia’s expansion into Ukraine.
And the Kremlin is starting to see the wisdom behind the phrase, “be careful what you wish for.”
This week, Putin ordered state media networks to drastically scale back their fawning coverage of Trump, according to Kremlin insiders who spoke with Bloomberg. The move reportedly reflects “a growing concern among senior Russian officials that the new U.S. administration will be less friendly than first thought.”
And there’s good reason for such concern: Far from reducing anti-Putin sentiment in U.S. politics, Trump’s rise — and suspicions of Russian involvement therein — has radically increased the salience of America’s geopolitical conflicts with Moscow on Capitol Hill. Now, the firing of Michael Flynn — amid suspicions that the national security adviser undermined the Obama administration’s most recent sanctions against Russia — raises the specter that Trump might rebrand himself as an anti-Kremlin hawk. After all, the mogul has always been more of an opportunist than ideologue, and taking a hard line on Russia would give him distance from a growing scandal, while firming up his support among Senate Republicans.
A recent presidential tweet on Putin’s seizure of Crimea did not mitigate such fears.
Separately, Moscow may also be worried about Trump’s impact on its own domestic politics. Trump is an unusually unpopular American president in America, but he’s a uniquely beloved one in Russia. And much like their counterparts in our country, Russian news networks can’t get enough of the reality-star-in-chief: Last month, Trump received more mentions in Russian media than Putin did. For the first time since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, the Russian president was only the second-most-talked-about man in his country.
This development may threaten more than just Putin’s ego. For one thing, Trump’s popularity makes it more difficult for the Russian regime to channel the frustration of its citizens into anti-Americanism. For another, Trump’s nationalism and Euroskepticism may be useful to Putin — but his rhetoric about rigged systems and the need for change very much isn’t.
There are a number of “globalist elites” in Putin’s inner circle, as Foreign Policy notes. And some of Trump’s most popular TV segments in Russia, according to Bloomberg, involve his calls to “drain the swamp” of such figures.
Few authoritarian regimes go out of their way to amplify the rhetoric of anti-establishment demagogues. It’s probably wise for Putin’s to stop being the exception.