Recent coverage by Russia’s state-controlled media of rising tensions between the United States and North Korea provides the latest evidence that the Kremlin is abandoning its earlier hope for a rapprochement with the Trump administration.
In a strongly worded 19 April commentary on Channel 1, television firebrand Dmitry Kiselyov put the blame primarily on Washington for the fact that its relations with Pyongyang had reached a boiling point. “It looks like the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un doesn’t give a darn that Trump posts on his Twitter what mother-bomb he dropped on Afghanistan,” Kiselyov stated. “After all, he’s home. He doesn’t plan to initiate an attack on anybody, but he’ll respond if he needs to.”
Kiselyov argued that both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are dangerous and unpredictable, and neither have much international experience, but Trump is of greater concern to Moscow. First, unlike Trump, the North Korean leader is prepared to negotiate. Second, Kim has not actually committed an aggressive act against any country; Trump has attacked Syria. Third, Kim did not send a naval armada to U.S. shores; Trump did send one to the waters off North Korea. Fourth—in a slap at Trump for making his daughter Ivanka an advisor—“Kim Jong-un’s only daughter Kim Ju-ae, who isn’t even 5 yet, doesn’t have her own office in the country leader’s residence yet. And she doesn’t even know what the American assault carrier Carl Vinson looks like in pictures, or she’d ask her Dad what it was doing on the shores of her country.” Given the situation, Kiselyov concluded, the Kremlin appealed to all countries to “remain calm and abstain from provocation.”
Moscow’s messaging about U.S. aggression has been taken up by pro-Kremlin media outside Russia as well. In Lithuania, as the 17 April CEPA Stratcom brief for that country shows, several themes about the U.S. missile strike on Syria were common: that the Assad regime should not be held responsible for the recent sarin gas attack that killed nearly 100 civilians; second, that Russia had nothing to do with it, and third, that because the perpetrators of the gas attack has not yet been identified, the Pentagon’s rashly launched missile strike violated international law.
In the weeks after the U.S. election last November, Kremlin media—like many Russian officials—made much of their hope that the new American president would take steps to repair bilateral ties at the expense of other U.S. interests. But at the 100-day mark there is little sign that the Trump administration will do so. Sanctions resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine remain in place. Trump has ordered a slight increase in U.S. troops deployed to Eastern Europe as part of a NATO mission explicitly designed to deter further Russian aggression. Nor has the Pentagon reduced its military or financial commitment to the alliance. Prospects for cooperation in the one area where progress seemed possible—the fight against Islamic State terrorists—have dimmed in the wake of Syrian gas attack.
Bureaucratic and political considerations on Capitol Hill have also played a role. With congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the campaign ongoing, it would be difficult for Trump to make concessions to Moscow even if he wished to do so. Since Trump’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere and he apparently has little interest in foreign policy details, Kremlin media have noted, day-to-day management of the U.S.-Russia relationship has fallen to Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—all of whom have taken a relatively hard line toward Moscow. Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in April was a tense, awkward affair at which the secretary of state and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov barely acknowledged each other. Russian President Vladimir Putin met Tillerson briefly, but he clearly wants a meeting with Trump, when he would be seen as the global equal of the U.S. president.
The ferocity of Kiselyov’s tone and his ad hominem comments about Trump, thus far uncommon in the Russian media, suggest he soon may subject Trump to the constant harsh treatment formerly meted out to Russia’s arch-enemies, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Its crassness aside, it also reminds us that in the absence of shared interests, values and world views, the prospect of better relations between the two countries is fragile indeed.
Photo: ITAR-TASS/Alexander Alpatkin