The Silence of the Bears
The Russian public was quiet about Manafort and Cohen, but in the halls of power, debate about Trump’s usefulness rages.
The shockwaves that followed Tuesday’s simultaneous legal action against Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Michael Cohen, his onetime personal lawyer, reached Russia very quickly. In the country’s media, what was so far the worst day for Trump’s presidency was met with a mix of schadenfreude and neglect. But in corridors of power, the news was a rude awakening. Moscow is finally realizing that even if Trump survives the many scandals that surround him, he won’t be able to deliver major improvements in U.S.-Russian ties. The only upside for the Kremlin is that any political struggle to remove Trump from office that may follow will leave American politics and society more divided than ever.
Stories about Manafort’s conviction on eight counts of tax and bank fraud and Cohen’s revelations under oath that Trump had instructed him to pay hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the future president, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, were featured somewhere in most Russian print and television news outlets. However, they were mostly overshadowed by a domestic debate. That discussion centered on the Kremlin’s most unpopular move to date—raising the retirement age—which sent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings into a downward spiral. This week, the State Duma, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament, is also initiating discussions about pension reform, and so everybody’s attention in Russia is focused on the Kremlin’s handling of what looms as the biggest PR crisis for the regime in many years.
Also sucking up a lot of media attention is the possible introduction of a new round U.S. sanctions against Russia following the attempted poisoning of the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom. Expectations that these could actually bite led to a fall in the ruble.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that, while quality newspapers such as Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK ran short stories that summed up the facts and reflected blandly on the possible impact of Tuesday’s events on the upcoming U.S. midterm elections and Trump’s future in the White House, others opted to put reports about Manafort and Cohen in the fourth of fifth spots in the news blocks.
On television, the main storyline was that the investigation against Trump’s associates was orchestrated by an entrenched American political class and is yet another indication of the cruelty of democratic systems. As if they were quoting from Trump’s Twitter feed (and reporters on Channel One, the backbone of Putin’s domestic propaganda machine, were indeed quoting his tweets), Russian TV hosts noted that “what was excusable for [former President Barack] Obama will be never excusable for Trump.” They alleged that the entire investigation into Trump’s campaign is a part of sophisticated anti-Trump and anti-Russian conspiracy.
At the same time, television coverage did not shy away from the seedier aspects of Cohen’s revelations, including that a married future U.S. president had affairs with a porn star and a Playboy model. This stands in stark contrast to the censorship that surrounds the private life of Putin, who is divorced; a tabloid called Moskovsky Korrespondent was shut down in 2008, six months after reporting that Putin was allegedly marrying Alina Kabaeva, an Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics.
Behind the relatively quiet public discussion of Manafort and Cohen, debates about the cases rage in Russian government and business circles. In these, cynicism carries the day. Russian officials and businesspeople in large state-owned conglomerates dealing with the United States believe that there is a long way from Cohen’s guilty plea to Trump’s impeachment. In private conversations, meanwhile, Russian diplomats quoted Trump-friendly legal opinions from the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and dismiss the idea that Russia should get hysterical about yet another Trump bombshell. After all, officials and businesspeople remark, Trump is a known entity in Russia, and it was only a matter of time before something like this would happen.
The bottom line for the Russian ruling class is very simple. Over the last 19 months, Trump has proved to be far more trouble for Moscow than his predecessor, who is openly despised in the Russian capital. Congressional sanctions against Russia are seen to have been levied only because of Trump’s erratic and unexplainable behavior, which makes him a liability, not an asset. For those officials and oligarchs concerned about the dangerous downward spiral in U.S.-Russian ties, then, the Manafort and Cohen cases are just another unwelcome episode in a long and disappointing series.
The only people who may be happy about Wednesday’s bombshells are those in the upper echelons of the Russian system who could capitalize on a breakdown of Moscow’s relations with the West—that is, those who benefit from sanctions and heightened anti-Americanism, such as Putin’s friends, state-owned companies engaged in import substitution, and the domestic security apparatus. For them, any new turmoil that Manafort’s convictions and Cohen’s revelations create in the United States are happy gains.