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This Week in Info War

Moscow reacts to Washington shake-up

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During the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Kremlin offered two primary explanations for why relations with the United States did not improve after the 2016 election. First, some Russian officials claimed Trump was unpredictable and thus a potentially unreliable partner (a concern that made many of them uneasy about candidate Trump during the U.S. presidential campaign). Second, though other officials welcomed Trump’s statements about the need for better relations, they blamed the Washington “Deep State” – the established U.S. foreign policy apparatus, which supposedly is “russophobic” and limits Trump’s freedom of action – for both sides’ inability to make that vision a reality.

In recent months, Moscow’s frustration often was focused on former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Given Tillerson’s impressive business background in Russia and his warm relationship with Putin’s right-hand man, Igor Sechin, Moscow initially was delighted with Tillerson’s nomination. But he quickly emerged as a relatively hardline member of Trump’s cabinet, conditioning any improvement in the relationship on Moscow changing course in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Tillerson also consistently confirmed the intelligence assessments that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Few officials or commentators in Moscow were disappointed, therefore, when President Trump announced on 13 March that Tillerson would be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. But there was little optimism the change would lead to better relations.

  • Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the future of U.S.-Russia ties following Pompeo’s appointment, said caustically that “it is hardly possible to fall below the floor.” Peskov added that in “this regard, further deterioration can hardly be feared … a hope remains, of course, for constructivism and a sober approach.”

  • Yevgeny Serebrennikov, first deputy chair of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, stated that “Russia will cooperate with all those appointed to this [Secretary of State] or another post in the Trump administration. We are pursuing the course of reducing tensions in relations between our countries, but our partners apparently do not share this aspiration.”

  • The head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, said that “the replacement of the U.S. Secretary of State does not look like a sign of a forthcoming change in that country’s foreign policy. It is not the Department of State that determined that policy lately. It was a result of backstage clashes, swaps and compromises between the White House and the Capitol Hill, between President Trump and the still more anti-presidential Congress. In that sense the strategy of Russia’s containment as … a compromise between them will not undergo any change.”

  • State television channel RT was heavily critical of Tillerson, calling him ineffective and one of the worst Secretaries of State in recent memory.

  • Sputnik gave low marks to Tillerson’s performance and was critical of the outgoing Secretary’s inability to strengthen ties with Russia and his failure to “establish a pragmatic conversation because of ongoing U.S. sanctions.” However, the outlet noted, Tillerson had a “warm” disposition towards Russia compared to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Special Envoy Kurt Volker.

  • Sputnik also went on the offensive: it dedicated an entire article to refuting the view – pushed by the U.S. media and Trump’s opponents – that Tillerson was fired because he took a hard line on Russia.

Although Russian officials have said little about Pompeo, the media devoted much coverage to speculation about whether relations with the United States would improve under a new Secretary of State. Rejecting arguments that Tillerson’s firing was linked to his views on Russia, RT wrote that attempts to link “Tillerson’s fall from grace to his criticism of Moscow … are inherently flawed, since his replacement, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is known to be particularly hard on Russia.” The outlet also was critical of Pompeo’s stances on waterboarding, North Korea, and Iran. Sputnik suggested that Pompeo supports torture and predicted that he could face problems getting confirmed by the Senate. RT also published an article in which U.S. analysts say Pompeo would be “unlikely to improve relations with Russia,” due to his “consistent and well documented pattern of militant positions on the main crises confronting the United States.” As such, the new Secretary’s “stated positions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea will likely contribute little to any true diplomatic breakthrough,” according to one expert.

On 20 March, the usual preoccupation of Russian elites with their country’s relations with the United States abruptly pivoted, from Tillerson’s departure to reports that President Trump called Putin to congratulate the Russian leader on his election victory. Trump made the call, according to an expert on one popular television program, to show U.S. elites that he could not be controlled. Another guest called for the replacement of Tillerson’s counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, by someone who could more effectively force the U.S. to treat Russia as an equal. For now, Lavrov’s departure seems unlikely, as does any improvement in relations.