Collusion or No, Russia’s Reaction to Mueller Report Echoes Trump’s

Kremlin seeks to argue that it’s as innocent as the U.S. president.

A mural depicting a winking Russian President Vladimir Putin taking off a Donald Trump mask is painted on a storefront outside of the Levee bar in Brooklyn on Feb. 25, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A mural depicting a winking Russian President Vladimir Putin taking off a Donald Trump mask is painted on a storefront outside of the Levee bar in Brooklyn on Feb. 25, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It may well be that, as special counsel Robert Mueller apparently concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. But in the days since a summary of the Mueller report emerged, the Kremlin and the Trump administration have almost been singing from the same page in their reaction.

Back in Washington, Trump has been raging against his political enemies, especially the media, since Attorney General William Barr summarized Mueller’s conclusions on Sunday. “The Mainstream Media is under fire and being scorned all over the World as being corrupt and FAKE. For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion when they always knew there was No Collusion,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman suggested that Western journalists should apologize for their coverage of the Mueller investigation into links between Moscow and the Trump campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

“How does American propaganda work and produce such massive fake content?” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Other Russian officials have also exploited the Mueller report’s conclusions to argue that Russia, like Trump, has been a victim of “two years of unceasing lies,” as Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, put it, not only about collusion but also over the idea that there was ever any Russian interference in the first place.

Russian Sen. Alexey Pushkov, well known for his hawkish stance, wrote on Twitter, “It has been confirmed that all these allegations were fabricated.”

“Given the official Kremlin line has always been denying any sort of interference, period, I think this is being received as essentially confirming that narrative,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Moscow, also taking its cue from Trump, has begun to claim as well that it was the Russia state media’s bête noire, Ukraine, that tried to interfere in the 2016 election in favor of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Last Wednesday, the U.S. president tweeted: “As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges.”

“The Russia investigation in the USA is over. Ukrainegate is beginning,” read one op-ed headline on site of the state-owned RIA Novosti.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, commenting on the initial findings of the report, also suggested that the Americans were still deluding themselves about Russian involvement.

“I would like to quote the words of a Chinese philosopher who said, ‘It is very hard to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there,’” he told reporters.

The Washington Post noted that this does not appear to be a Chinese proverb.

Russia’s official reaction overlooks the fact that in his letter to Congress summarizing the Mueller report’s findings Barr said flatly that Moscow did seek to influence the course of the U.S. elections and there were “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” Two-thirds of the people indicted in the investigation were Russian.

Even the Russian markets were feeling optimistic, with both the ruble and the Russian stock exchange up at the end of the day on Monday, as fears of further U.S. sanctions were ameliorated by the report’s initial conclusions.

Numerous schadenfreude-infused news reports drew attention to the cost of the investigation, with pro-Kremlin Ren TV questioning how $25 million “turned into a dry four-page report.”

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Mueller’s conclusion that there was no collusion “was to be expected.” It called his indictment of 25 Russians “grotesque,” describing his actions as politically biased and a “disgrace to the U.S. system of justice.”

In a Facebook post, Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff for Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, said that now that Trump has been cleared of collusion, Russia’s hawks will try to blur the line and argue Russia’s overall innocence.

Russian liberals—who have few illusions about President Vladimir Putin or his capabilities—also lamented that the U.S. media’s laser focus on all things Russian in recent years has both burnished Putin’s image while simultaneously portraying Russia as a victim of a witch hunt for audiences at home.

“From the official Russian perspective, from the propaganda state media perspective, it’s incredibly helpful, as it confirms the Russia narrative that Putin has made Russia great again,” said Polyakova of the Brookings Institution.

“There’s a joke going around at that: ‘We haven’t got [indoor] toilets in one-fifth of Russian homes, but hey, we can get the American president elected,’” Polyakova said.

Many Russians have become frustrated at times with the tone of the U.S. media’s coverage of Russia.

“Russians are fair game for very ’50s style xenophobia,” said the Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev. “Russia is not Communist, Putin is not all-powerful, Russians are not naturally despotic.” 

“Even the most liberal and anti-Putin person in Russia wants to be proud of their country and see it being an ally in the world rather than a scapegoat for many evils in the world,” said Vitali Shkliarov, a political consultant who served as senior advisor on opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak’s 2018 campaign for the Russian presidency.

As relations sour between Russia and the West, it’s the liberal opposition that is left behind, Shkliarov said.

Russia’s vehement denials of its effort to influence the 2016 U.S. elections will come as little surprise to longtime Russia watchers. From the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal to its covert war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has an extensive track record of denying its actions abroad, often despite a preponderance of evidence.

“We are laughing,” Alexander Malkevich, the head of the Commission of Mass Media in the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, told Foreign Policy. “We are really laughing, because we see the result of two years of work of Mueller’s commission. Thirty-five million dollars was spent for what, to say that the president is innocent?”

Malkevich was subject to U.S. sanctions in December for his own role in running a website linked to the so-called troll factory that sought to exploit fissures in American society through fake and distorted news. Malkevich said his operation was disrupted as part of U.S. Cyber Command’s effort to take the troll factory offline on the day of the U.S. midterm elections last year.

Ultimately, Polyakova said, the granular attention given to the question of collusion has distracted from the larger Russian goal of undermining democracy.

“It’s not about specific candidates, it’s not about elections. It’s a continuous slow drip that tries to chip away at the legitimacy of Western democracies. And we focus so much on elections—which we should—but we’ve completely missed the bigger picture,” she said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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