One month in, the new White House is looking chaotic and weak -- the opposite of what Russia respects in a politician.
- By Amie Ferris-RotmanAmie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.
MOSCOW – Several months ago, on the outskirts of Moscow, someone took white paint and scrawled a short statement of political protest onto the side of a garbage depot. “Trump is a faggot,” the graffiti read.
This small act of defiance in then-Donald Trump-loving Russia went largely unnoticed, however — until this week. Now, the photo, which journalists say was taken in November, is making the rounds on Russian social media, where it’s being greeted with mockery. “We believed in you! And your despicable self betrayed us!” the Moscow-based photographer Sergey Sukhorukov wrote this week, in a poem he shared with the picture.
The new U.S. president has been in his role for just under a month, taking office in a transition that has been marked by chaos and missteps. And already, from the right of the political spectrum to the marginalized Russian left, a mixture of disappointment with the new U.S. president — who came into office promising to remake relations between the two countries — and a sense of vindication that Trump couldn’t be trusted after all has crept into Russian political chatter. “Is Trump already out of fashion?” the independent Russian journal Russkaya Fabula asked on Wednesday — the same day that the Trump administration was dealing with the fallout stemming from revelations about National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. The site pointed to a small demonstration by hard-line nationalists this week, which picketed a major state-run news outlet and demanded the end of the “cult of Trump” in Russian media.
It’s true that in recent months the adulation has been inescapable. According to a recent Russian media survey, Trump surpassed the omnipresent Russian leader Vladimir Putin as the most-mentioned person in the Russian press in the month of January, with 202,000 references, versus Putin’s total of nearly148,000. “Judging by the top news items on (Russian search engine) Yandex, Putin has somehow turned Russia into one more American state. There’s none of our own news. There’s only interest in the USA,” said liberal politician Ilya Yashin.
That’s in part because the Russia question has loomed so large over Trump’s nascent presidency. Relations between Russia and the United States were at a post-Cold War nadir in the waning days of the Obama administration, dogged by differences on Ukraine and Syria, and accusations of election-related hacking. Trump came into office having declared several times over the course of the campaign his admiration for Putin, and promising a dramatic shake-up in relations — potentially even a revisiting of sanctions that were slapped on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Such pledges spurred a sort of “Trumpomania” across Russia. Sugar, charcoal, hamburgers, and silver minted coins have been made in his honor; Trump’s inauguration was celebrated with glee at several Moscow locales.
It wasn’t just the promise of a reset, however: Trump’s tough talk on migration and terrorism, combined with his success in business, appealed to Russians too, both ordinary and high-ranking. They saw in Trump the sort of strong, law-and-order leadership they found attractive at home. For many Russians, especially Putin supporters, presenting an image of strength is vital to how they want to be viewed on the world stage. The memories of the chaotic, impoverished 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union still haunt the country, and Putin’s tight grip on power has become the hallmark of his leadership. Clumsy, directionless rule is frowned upon.
But the last few weeks of Trump’s administration have been marked by signs of weakness. The president’s controversial executive order banning refugees and immigration from several Muslim-majority countries was met with large-scale protests, and then stayed by judges; his nominees for high-ranking positions have been met with opposition. And the less commanding Trump has seemed, the less alluring he has come across — not just to Americans, but to Russians, too.
“Never has Trump been so close to failure,” right-wing politician and former lawmaker Nikolai Travkin said after Flynn’s resignation, making reference to a popular Russian joke about a fictional Soviet World War Two spy. Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, tweeted on the changing mood in Moscow on Wednesday, asking, in Russian, “Well, colleagues, is [Trump] still yours?” McFaul referred to the widespread Russian hashtag #TrampNash, meaning “Trump is ours” and a play on words on the oft-heard phrase “Krim Nash,” or “Crimea is ours.”
The disappointment in the fledgling U.S.-Russian rapprochement seems to have been cemented, both in the Kremlin and among ordinary Russians, earlier this week with the Trump administration unexpectedly declaring that Crimea was taken forcefully by Russia and should be returned to Ukraine. Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, the largest land-grab in Europe in decades. In a press conference on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump had made it “very clear” that he expected Russia to return Crimea, and urged Russia to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine, which has recently experienced an uptick in fighting.
Russia’s reaction to the Trump administration’s seeming U-turn was swift and straightforward: “We do not return our territories,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a routine media briefing. “Crimea is a territory of the Russian Federation. That’s it.” The Kremlin also ordered state media to cut back on their overly positive coverage of Trump, Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources.
At the beginning of the year, some polls put the number of Russians feeling positively towards the U.S. at double the numbers seen in 2015, reaching some 40 percent. But now, there are signs that some Russians feel they spoke too soon.
“We were too early in our decision, made with absolute sympathy towards President Trump’s constructive rhetoric, that he would somehow be pro-Russian,” Leonid Slutsky, head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Wednesday. “But he turned out to be pro-American,” said Slutsky, whose nationalist LDPR party welcomed Trump’s win by publicly quaffing champagne.
Pavel Danilin, director of the pro-Kremlin Center for Political Analysis, said on his Facebook page that since the “holy veil” had fallen from Trump, “it’s now possible to talk about the president’s actions normally.”
Distaste for Trump is also beginning to be heard in Russia’s Muslim community, which up until now had been largely silent on what have been widely seen as Trump’s anti-Muslim tendencies. Russia is home to around 20 million Muslims — about 15 per cent of the population — and most Muslim leaders in the country enjoy a close relationship with Putin. (By contrast, the United States is home to just over 3 million Muslims). During the Trump campaign and in the brief post-inaugural honeymoon period, Muslim groups were dissuaded from talking disparagingly of Trump in order to avoid upsetting the Kremlin, community insiders say. Russia’s official response to Trump’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim-majority countries was, in the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, “not our business.”
But that stance is already beginning to change. “Trump is not a genuine person,” said Gulnar Gaideeva, spokeswoman for the Union of Muftis in Russia, the country’s most prominent Muslim organization. Like most Muslims around the world, Russia’s community is unwavering in its support for Palestinians, and is unlikely to allow Trump’s comments on a one-state solution in Israel to go unchallenged. “We are citizens of Russia and also stand in solidarity with our fellow Muslims around the world,” she said.
And so, what had looked like it was going to be a warm embrace between two erstwhile Cold War foes could be already turning into another botched attempt at a reset — only this time around, we might not even get to the misspelled red toy button stage. As a popular Russian saying goes, “Be true to your word, or don’t give it at all.” In other words: Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Photo credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images