For Russia, Impeachment Can’t Be Over Soon Enough
Despite the shadow cast by election interference, many leading Russians—even Putin—would like to get back to normal dealings.
MOSCOW—As the third-ever impeachment trial in U.S. history slogged through its third day on Thursday, supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump weren’t the only people hoping for a swift conclusion. Many Russians seem to feel the same way—from the highest levels of the Kremlin to people on the streets of Moscow.
Though Russians know their country has been cast as one of the main villains of the drama in Washington—since Trump’s 2016 election, no nation has hovered over his presidency quite like Russia—many in Moscow say that they, like Americans, hope for a return to normalcy and a chance to reengage diplomatically. And as far as Russian interference in U.S. politics goes, well, if it’s true, so what? Doesn’t every country do it?
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin may be frustrated by the official chill between Moscow and Washington, experts say, although U.S. intelligence believes his security services are behind some of the discredited conspiracy theories that helped set the stage for Trump’s impeachment —mainly Trump’s idea that Ukraine, more than Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. While many Russia analysts acknowledge that Moscow welcomes the ongoing chaos in Washington, which feeds Putin’s strategic aim of undermining U.S. power, they often caution that it also works to undercut the Russian president’s long-term goals and what the Kremlin hoped to gain from an anti-establishment president like Trump.
Primarily, that means trying to cut a strategic deal with the White House on a host of issues, including arms control and respecting spheres of influences, that could rewrite the status quo enshrined after the end of the Cold War.
“[The Kremlin] would like that everything would finish as fast as possible and that Trump could be more free from all this pressure he has inside of the country,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Moscow wants to profit from Trump and engage with him, but they can’t because he is too dependent on what’s going on with internal U.S. politics.”
From the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to the U.S. president’s reported affinity for Putin, the Kremlin’s ambitions and Moscow’s moves around the world have taken center stage in Washington and transformed U.S.-Russia relations into a part of the country’s domestic political debate.
Now, with a vote divided along party lines for the impeachment trial in the Republican-controlled Senate a real possibility, many in Moscow are hoping that a quick conclusion to the trial may provide some temporary reprieve from being a major focus of America’s increasingly divisive politics.
Such hopes may be disingenuous, given the huge scale of Russian interference in U.S. affairs, from disinformation campaigns to strategic hacking, and how U.S. political dysfunction bolsters the strategic goals of the Russian leadership. On Wednesday in Washington, as Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and head of the team of House managers, outlined evidence that Trump had sought to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, Schiff also focused on the role that Russian operatives played in interfering in the 2016 election and raised the specter of further meddling during the upcoming 2020 presidential vote.
To many Russians, such rhetoric only promises more of the same. “Russia wants to work together with the United States, but on its terms,” Stanovaya said. “The Kremlin knows that [the] American establishment sees it as a threat that should be deterred and contained, so it’s looking for openings to counter that mainstream view.”
Relations between Moscow and Washington remain at a historic low, but Trump and Putin have a cordial relationship, with Trump even siding with the Russian leader’s denials of election interference over the assessments of U.S. intelligence agencies. And despite the Kremlin’s alleged desire to stay out of the political fray in Washington, Russian-linked operatives continue to orbit around events linked to the ongoing impeachment proceedings. Last week, the U.S. cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security said that last November, Russian military agents successfully hacked into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the center of Trump’s impeachment trial. Moreover, Russian security services may have played a role in spreading false claims about Ukraine in the 2016 election, a theory espoused by Trump. While such allegations have been promoted by American figures, including right-wing journalists and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, the Washington Post reported in December that U.S. intelligence officials briefed lawmakers that Russian operatives played a key role in spreading the claims.
Russian state media, meanwhile, has covered both the House and Senate hearings in terms sympathetic to Trump and the predominant Republican position, while Putin himself has taken to echoing Trump’s own talking points on impeachment.
“First, they accuse Trump of collusion with Russia, then it turns out there was no collusion, so this cannot be used as a basis for impeachment,” Putin said in December during a news conference. “Now they’ve come up with the idea he put pressure on Ukraine. I don’t know what it is all about.”
Similar skeptical views on the impeachment proceedings in Washington and the role of Russian interference seem to be shared across the broader Russian public, said Alexey Naumov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and the deputy editor of the foreign desk at the Russian newspaper Kommersant, where he covers U.S. politics, including tracking the impeachment trial.
“Russians are pretty cynical,” he said. “Most people here believe a leader can get away with much more than the average person, and Trump asking another leader to do him a favor isn’t such a big deal. That’s a general consensus among people who follow the news and don’t follow the news.”
Impeachment and the details of American government are not leading topics driving Russian news coverage, and a large section of the population remains apolitical. Moreover, Putin’s surprise announcement last week to revise the constitution in a bid to extend his rule continues to dominate discussion and headlines in the country. But the view on impeachment from Moscow, however limited, also provides a fun-house mirror reflection of the insecurities, misconceptions, and similarities that Russians and Americans share about each other’s countries as Moscow and Washington are mired in growing geopolitical tension.
“It looks like political theater to me,” said Pavel Shakirov, a 33-year-old Muscovite who works in marketing, about the impeachment trial. “Russia is often said to be doing many things in America, but I think it is just a reason for Trump’s opponents to attack him.”
The issue of Russian meddling abroad, from election interference in the United States to the attempted assassination of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom, has been met with official denials in Moscow and at times mockery on Russian state media, and opinion polls have tended to reflect that the public embraces this official narrative. Many have also expressed incredulity that Russia could successfully undermine the United States.
“Russians don’t think that Russia is as powerful as Americans think it is,” Naumov, the Kommersant journalist, said. “We see incompetence here every day. It’s hard for people to believe that [Russia] is a well-oiled hybrid war machine aimed at the heart of a democratic United States.”
But according to Denis Volkov, the deputy director at the Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow, on closer examination many Russians are willing to entertain that their country has interfered in other countries’ affairs. From his perch at the Levada Center, Volkov has been on the front lines of Russian public opinion and conducted a series of focus groups in 2018 about foreign interference where participants were willing to veer from the state-sanctioned version of events.
“It gets denied at first, but in less formal conversations there is an acknowledgement,” Volkov said. “But they will say that every great country does it, so why shouldn’t we? They say America interferes with other countries, and they are a great country, so if we are a great country, then we should be doing it, too.”
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan