As controversy swirls around Trump, Russia watches helplessly

Many in Russia had hoped that the new president could help smooth relations between Moscow and Washington. But as Russia-tied scandals paralyze Trump's administration, now the Kremlin just want US-Russia diplomacy not to get worse.

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with Defense Ministry top officials and defence industry representatives in Sochi, Russia May 17, 2017.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin offered on Wednesday to provide Congress with a transcript of his foreign minister's controversial meeting last week with President Trump in the Oval Office, it was not warmly received by US politicians.

But debating the legitimacy of the offer – nominally to prove that no classified information changed hands – may be missing the point, Russian foreign policy experts say.

Rather, its greater significance may be as a sign of just how alarmed Mr. Putin and the Kremlin are becoming about what's happening in Washington.

Kremlin watchers say they feel like helpless observers amid the firestorm of the Russia-related scandals engulfing the Trump administration. While the Kremlin tries to advance what Russian observers say are sincere efforts to establish normal dialogue with a new US president, it is taken in Washington to be further evidence of political collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia.

And instead of realizing the rapprochement it once hoped for with a Trump-led United States, the Kremlin now worries that Trump could set back US-Russian relations for decades.

"We are very confused and even a bit terrified by what we see unfolding in Washington," says Fyodor Lukyanov, a senior Russian foreign policy analyst. "The name of Russia keeps coming up, but we don't feel like we have anything to do with this. This level of paranoia is beyond rational, and the only way we can make sense of it is that there is an attempt by political forces to play the Russia card as a weapon to destroy Trump.

"It's not that we especially want to save Trump," Mr. Lukyanov adds, "but the growing fear is that any chance of improved US-Russia relations will be vaporized in this war against him."

'A bit distressing'

At a press conference in Sochi Wednesday, Mr. Putin said he is deeply concerned that US-Russia relations may be in danger of being completely shipwrecked by what he called "political schizophrenia" driving the US conversation. He pledged that, with White House consent, he would hand over a full record of what was said between Trump, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the May 10 meeting.

Putin's comments were made in response to US media reports Monday that Trump disclosed classified data to Mr. Lavrov during the meeting regarding a terrorist threat to civil aviation, involving bombs hidden in laptop computers. Russian analysts say they take that as a sign that Trump wants to cooperate more intensively with Russia against the extremist group ISIS, which destroyed a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in November 2015.

"Whatever other differences we may have, the joint fight against terrorism was supposed to be an area where we could work together," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "Any information that might help prevent an attack on Russian civilians would be received with gratitude, and it's a bit distressing to see this very thing being cited against Trump...."

Putin tried to make light of the claims that Trump had shared sensitive information with Russia, blaming Lavrov for not informing him that any secrets had been handed over "either to me or to our intelligence services. That's not good on his part," Putin joked.

But some Russian experts say that anything the Kremlin does or says at this point is only likely to make things worse.

"Perhaps Putin thought that he could make a constructive step, maybe help Trump in this predicament," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "But there is nothing we can do about this. People in Washington will only take it as some new provocation or trick from the Kremlin."

"A lot of people here are starting to think that it might be better not to talk with the Americans at all until this battle over the head of Trump is settled in Washington," says Mr. Strokan.

'Completely paralyzed'

The mood is a profound shift from the apparent euphoria the Russian establishment felt when Trump defeated avowed hawk Hillary Clinton last November. At the time, there was some talk that a new "grand bargain" between the two nuclear powers might put an end to the growing, cold war-like tensions between them.

But they gradually lost hope that any major turnaround would take place, and by the time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow last month, the expected positive agenda had been replaced by what the Foreign Ministry called a growing "list of irritants."

Still, Mr. Tillerson met with Putin in the Kremlin for two hours on that occasion, paving the way for last Wednesday's meeting between Lavrov and Trump in the Oval Office.

"A lot of people warned during the US election campaign, and after Trump's victory, that it was not going to be easy," says Lukyanov. "It was pointed out that Trump might say some interesting things for us, but that he was clearly inexperienced and unprofessional, and anything he did might just create confusion and uncertainty that would go against Russia's interests.

"But nobody had any idea how bad it could get. Now we see that he's completely paralyzed and, whatever he may have wanted to do, it's become clear that it's exceedingly difficult to deal with this person. Now we are afraid that amid this domestic struggle in the US, Russia's name will be attached to Trump's impeachment, or something worse, which could ruin chances for better relations for a generation."

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