When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday made a public request to Russia that it publish missing emails from Hillary Clinton's personal web server, it ignited rampant press speculation as to what he meant.
Was Mr. Trump really proposing that Russia, already accused by US authorities of breaking into the Democratic Party's servers, violate US law? Or was he merely being sarcastic, as Trump claimed Thursday?
Whatever the actual intent, for Russian observers, it conjured amusement as much as anything.
"Of course Russians see Trump's remarks [about Russia hacking Hillary's emails] as a bit wild. But we've already gotten used to the idea that this is Trump's brand – he's very anti-protocol, he negates all the gods of stability, a real rebel in the system," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "This is a media circus, it's just more of the same rhetoric. And, for us, it's very entertaining."
But beyond any schadenfreude over the upheaval Trump is causing in the US election, Russian Kremlin-watchers are much more measured about the ambitions and hopes Vladimir Putin's government may have in the US election. While they say Trump's foreign policy rhetoric sounds appealing to Russians, there is much debate whether Trump would actually come through on his promises of better relations with Moscow – something that past US presidential candidates have promised and not realized.
"Quite a few people in the Russian establishment might be secretly pinning their hopes on Trump," says Mr. Strokan. "We always go through this. Last time many of us pinned big hopes on Obama, but that didn't play out. We should all learn to be careful what we wish for."
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal, says that a lot of people in Russia's foreign policy establishment are fascinated with the Trump phenomenon, and they are all carefully parsing the transcript of his recent foreign policy interview with The New York Times.
"It can't be denied that there is a huge interest in the things Trump is saying," he says. "Many Russians who sympathize with him don't actually believe he can win, but are happy to see that he's changing the conversation about foreign policy. And, of course, nobody has any hopeful expectations for Hillary either. There is an enormous amount of discussion going on about all this and, frankly, we are all amazed to find Russia seeming to take center stage. What next?"
The spotlight turned on Russia last weekend, after WikiLeaks published hacked Democratic Party emails on its site. Security experts in the US say they have good reasons to believe that Russian intelligence services were behind a massive and long-lasting hack of the Democratic National Committee that stole a huge trove of documents, including the controversial emails whose publication on Wikileaks last week, ahead of the Democratic Convention, led to the resignation of the DNC chairwoman.
The allegations are not getting very much coverage in Russian media, but they do have the country's foreign policy community atwitter. "This is a fantastic turn of events," says Mr. Lukyanov. "I don't think I've ever witnessed anything quite like it."
Whatever the role of Russia in the hacks, the timing of the leaks appears to be controlled by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who uploaded an encrypted 88 gigabyte file containing all the purloined DNC materials about a month ago. He claims there are plenty more such revelations to come.
The limits of Trump's appeal
The Kremlin has dismissed the allegations that it was behind the hack as "absurd." Most Russian experts say they have no idea who's involved, though some admit that the Russian government might stand to benefit from such an act.
To be sure, Trump has his supporters in Russia, including including ultra-nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who has expressed his hope that Trump will "shake up the world" in several essays and a TV show. Alexander Domrin, a law professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, started a bilingual Facebook group entitled "Russians for Donald Trump," which he hopes will grow into a big discussion forum on the subject.
"We think relations between Russia and the US will be better under Trump than under Hillary," says Mr. Domrin, who has cited Clinton's hack accusations against Russia as an indication of how things will be under her. "We're not taking our cue from the Kremlin, we're speaking for ourselves."
But some experts are skeptical of the notion that Putin shares that view enough to take the major risk of interfering, however indirectly, in domestic US affairs.
"All these claims about how Putin wants Trump to win is based on just one statement he made. He called Trump yarki, which means 'bright' if you're talking about the weather, but if you're talking about a person, it just means sort of 'outstanding' [as in standing out from the background]. And he is undeniably outstanding," says Vladimir Posner, who has spent decades working in both US and Russian media, and currently hosts one of the country's top interview shows, "Posner," on state-run Channel One.
"The thing is that Putin – and I know Putin – is a totally different kind of person from Donald Trump. Putin is cautious and controlled, where Trump is impetuous and temperamental. In general, Russian authorities prefer predictability and stability, and it's hard to believe they would feel any kind of affinity for Trump," Mr. Posner says. "Of course, they also believe Hillary Clinton is an anti-Putin hawk, and don't expect anything good from her. My impression is that Putin would probably prefer 'none of the above' in the US election."
Moreover, says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, Trump would be making "a terrible mistake" if he truly meant his words yesterday as a request of Russia. "It seems inconceivable that a serious candidate for the US presidency would call upon a foreign intelligence service to help him in his campaign."
"If anyone thinks this will endear him to Putin, I am not so sure," Mr. Konovalov adds. "Yes, Trump looks like a destructive force, with his views on NATO and other established US policies, and maybe that sounds appealing. But we have a long history of secretly favoring US candidates who sound more moderate about Russia – like [John] Kennedy, [Jimmy] Carter, Obama – and always getting the opposite. I doubt that the Kremlin has a horse in this race."