John Bolton, the pugnacious former UN ambassador, took over on 9 April as President Trump’s national security adviser – the third person to hold the job in barely 14 months. Bolton’s selection set off a guessing game in Moscow as to how much his tough approach to foreign policy would impact relations with Russia. An indicator is likely to come quickly: the first foreign crisis confronting Bolton in his new post is how to respond to a suspected chemical weapons attack by Syria’s government, a Kremlin ally, including possible military retaliation.
Russian officials were restrained in their reaction to Bolton’s appointment, though generally expressing a desire for better relations. Kremlin spokesman Peskov called
the choice the “U.S. president’s right,” and said that Bolton’s selection “is not our business.” Peskov hoped “that there will be more people in the U.S. leadership who will be able to distance itself from the wave of ‘Russophobia’ that has now swept up many countries, including the United States.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the choice the internal affair of the United States, but also hoped relations between the two countries would “normalize.” However, in a tweet, Russian Federation Council member Alexey Pushkov wrote, “Bolton, along with Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, was an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq. A supporter of jihadists for the sake of overthrowing [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. A great specialist in interventions and aggression, and adept at the use of force. . . . Bolton is the ideologue of a new cold war, a convinced opponent of Russia.”
Russian media took a more critical line, ridiculing Bolton as a “warmonger,” “neocon,” or “hawk,” with the main targets being his views on the Iran nuclear deal, the Iraq War, and North Korea. Many predicted that Bolton’s ascent to national security adviser would precipitate a war with Iran or North Korea. Some outlets suggested that Bolton would manipulate Trump into taking more hawkish positions. RT called Bolton the “Hawkiest Hawk of the Bush administration,” the “mastermind” of the WMD “myth” about Iraq, and described him as an unapologetic warmonger with a questionable moral compass.
RT also attempted to paint the President as a flip-flopper on the Iraq war by highlighting a tweet from 2013 in which Trump wrote that the Iraq War was “a waste of blood & treasure.” In the same article, it jokingly suggested that Trump’s recent nominations may have turned his administration “over to the 1st Marine Division, which played a major role in the Iraq War.” The outlet also published an article emphasizing leading Democrats’ critical comments about Bolton.
Sputnik ridiculed U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis for a recent meeting with Bolton. The outlet suggested that Mattis should consider changing his nickname from “Mad Dog” to “Cerberus—the Greek ‘hound of Hades’—since he is now keeping company with the so-called ‘devil incarnate’ in Bolton.” In another article, Sputnik mocked Bolton’s policy stances, writing that Bolton is a “devoted disciple of the ‘bomb them to hell and ask questions later’ school of U.S. politics” and that “for the likes of John Bolton [international law] is for wimps. Real men and real countries bomb whom the hell they want when the hell they want, and screw the consequences.”
also conducted interviews with several “experts,” portraying their opinions as facts. Bolton was frequently described as an “old-school neocon” bent on waging war against America’s adversaries, including Iran and North Korea. In one article, the headline read: “‘If Trump Plans to Break Iran Deal, Bolton Can Help Him Do So’—Analyst.” Another commentator stated
that Trump has “surrounded himself with people who are total yes men when it comes to Hawkish policy,” with likely negative consequences for future U.S.-Palestinian relations. Sputnik
also cited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who in an interview with USA Today called Bolton’s appointment “one of the worst mistakes” that President Trump has made.
Prominent Russian commentator Vladimir Frolov was one of the few commentators who saw a possible silver lining for the Kremlin in Bolton’s appointment. First, Frolov argued, Bolton’s appointment could create chaos on the Trump foreign policy team, which would be a window of opportunity for the Kremlin. Second, if the U.S. withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal or allows talks with North Korea to break down, that will create fault lines between Washington and its allies that the Kremlin can exploit. Third, Bolton’s view of the world, with its “contempt for international institutions and rules of law” and disinterest in democracy and human rights, is similar to the Kremlin’s. Despite differences on key issues such as Ukraine, Bolton thus may be open to deals with Russia, Frolov concluded, possibly explaining the Kremlin’s restrained reaction to his appointment.