How Russians see the political drama unfolding in Washington

Enthusiasm among the Russian establishment has waned since Trump's election.

March 10, 2017, 10:58 AM

MOSCOW -- Millions of Americans viewed President Donald Trump’s election victory as an upset. But for many in Russia, it was a celebration. Russian lawmakers even toasted Trump’s win with champagne in the country’s parliament.

But how do Russians feel about Trump and his administration in the weeks since the inauguration, with Russia dominating U.S. headlines and being at the center of many of the controversies that have buffeted the White House? The enthusiasm of some Russian elites appears to be fading even as ordinary Russians still express support for Trump.

Here's a look at how the relationship between the two world powers -- and their leaders -- has evolved, and what Russians are saying now about what's going on in Washington.

PHOTO: Pedestrians walk through Moscow's Red Square on March 4, 2017.
Pedestrians walk through Moscow's Red Square on March 4, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Russia steals the spotlight in US politics

Controversies around Trump's relationship with Russia have frequently stolen the spotlight in U.S. media, back to when he was the Republican presidential nominee up till now. But in the months since his election, the controversies have ballooned into an uproar in Washington that has dominated the early weeks of his presidency.

The root of the controversies are in the accusation by American intelligence officials that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential race last year. Officials accused Russian state-controlled hackers of targeting political organizations and individuals and leaked the material to have a political impact.

According to a declassified version of a report on Russian hacking activity, Putin ordered a campaign to influence the contest between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the goal of which eventually evolved into tipping the election in Trump’s favor.

"We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency," the report reads, citing the Russian government's "long-standing desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order" as the chief motive.

"We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report added, saying Putin nursed a "grudge" against Clinton "for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging."

More important than the grudge, and left unsaid by the report, Clinton’s policy on Russia was viewed unfavorably by the Kremlin, which considered her a hawkish proponent of U.S. interventionism in the world who would pursue a hard line on Russia in Syria and Ukraine, while likely seeking to undermine Putin at home.

Trump, by contrast, was promising to “get along with Russia” and questioning the wisdom of confronting the Kremlin. Thus, the choice for Moscow was simple. Expressed crudely by its television propaganda and picked up by many ordinary Russians who told ABC News before the vote that Clinton meant “war” and Trump meant “peace."

The Russian operation, as described in the report, has raised questions on whether the Trump campaign could have colluded with Moscow. The report made no suggestion of this but the mere possibility has thrown a cloud of suspicion over any contacts between Trump's senior advisers and Russia, fueled in part by their failure to declare them.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017, for his address to a joint session of Congress.
President Donald Trump arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017, for his address to a joint session of Congress.
Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP

Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned in February after he was accused of misleading the vice president and other White House officials about contacts with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into alleged ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign after revelations that he had two meetings with Kislyak during the presidential campaign and then failed to disclose the contacts during his Senate confirmation hearing.

It was later revealed that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser, and Flynn also met with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower in December. Anonymous leaks from U.S. intelligence officials to The New York Times and CNN have alleged Trump campaign advisers were in contact with “Russian intelligence officials” during the election but it was unclear what was discussed.

Trump, his administration and his campaign have all flatly denied any inappropriate collusion with Russia. Russian officials have also denied any inappropriate conduct.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC News on Monday he did not see anything to suggest that Russia successfully infiltrated Trump's presidential campaign or recruited any of his advisers -- at least as of Jan. 20, when Clapper left office.

Still, the controversies and suspicions linger. Democrats are continuing to demand that a special prosecutor investigate Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, while the FBI is reportedly running its own probe into four of Trump’s campaign advisers and their contacts with Moscow. Meanwhile, there is a strong bipartisan effort in the Senate to punish Russia over its alleged interference.

PHOTO: T-shirts with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a store in Moscow, March 5, 2017.
T-shirts with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a store in Moscow, March 5, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What Russia’s state media and elites are saying

The Kremlin has been careful to present a more restrained reaction to Trump’s election. But in the days after the vote, Russian state media -- which had unabashedly backed Trump throughout his campaign -- initially appeared to revel in his victory.

Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, Russia’s international broadcaster that U.S. intelligence assessed played a key role in pushing out disinformation about Clinton in the U.S., tweeted triumphantly as results came in: “Today I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag."

Other pro-Kremlin commentators spoke ecstatically of Trump's election and the possibility of a grand alliance with the United States. But that euphoria has begun to give way to caution as Trump has appeared to fall back on more traditional U.S. policy towards Moscow.

Though continuing to speak warmly of Putin, Trump has shown no softening on the Kremlin’s key foreign policy goals. On Ukraine, the Trump administration has heavily criticized Russia for fresh violence there and has stated that Moscow must return Crimea if sanctions are to be lifted. Trump has reaffirmed his commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Putin views as a hostile blow. The U.S. president has also attacked a key nuclear arms control treaty as “a bad deal."

Flynn’s removal has also seen the appointment of heavyweight political figures known to take a hard view on Russia, in particular General H.R. McMaster as Trump’s new national security adviser, whose last assignment was to rebuild the Pentagon’s strategy for combating Russia.

PHOTO: Students stand under a picture of Vladimir Lenin in downtown Moscow on March 9, 2017.
Students stand under a picture of Vladimir Lenin in downtown Moscow on March 9, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As signs pointing to a less friendly administration have emerged, Russian state media has rapidly scaled back its coverage and positive commentary of Trump, reportedly at the Kremlin’s order. The Kremlin has denied this but the change in tone has been marked, with Trump abruptly disappearing from Russian news broadcasts.

The media “overplayed their hand in the first weeks and months after Trump’s election and they created some unrealistic expectations," Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based international affairs analyst, told ABC News in a phone interview Thursday.

With the Kremlin unsure of what will come, Frolov said "the general guidance is to tamp down the exuberance that overtook the Russian media right after Trump’s election."

“We are in wait-and-see mode, for which areas we can find to do business. Given the lack of substance it’s very hard for the Russians to orientate themselves,” he said, adding that the Trump administration's positions on Russia "seem to be all over the place at the moment."

Russian officialdom, however, has taken a generous view of Trump’s apparent cooling on detente. A prevailing belief is that Trump is being constrained by the Washington establishment, which is using the Russia controversies against him.

“The problem is that Trump’s team now doesn’t have the political support for serious agreements with Russia,” Sergei Karaganov, dean of the Department of International Relations at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and considered to be close to the Kremlin’s thinking, said in a recent interview with the Russian journal, Argumenti i Fakti. “The issue is the unpredictable and heavily split [American] elite."

“But it’s worth us trying to reach an agreement with the new administration,” Karaganov added. “Good relations are better than hostile ones, but we mustn’t have any illusions. There’s no point in arguing over which line -- hard or soft -- Trump will choose in relations with Moscow. Trump is an American president. He is interested above all in America. He doesn’t really have anything really to do with Russia, though, he understands that it’s better to be friends with Russia than to bicker with it.”

PHOTO: A man walks down a street in Moscow, March 7, 2017.
A man walks down a street in Moscow, March 7, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Accompanying the sense that Trump’s hands are not free is also a creeping understanding that, despite the rhetoric, there are actually few areas where Russia and the United States actually have interest in cooperating. Besides fighting ISIS in Syria, which Frolov called “low-hanging fruit,” Moscow and Washington interests remain unchanged in many areas.

“My feeling is that recently in Russia they’ve started to look at Trump more soberly,” Dmitry Trenin, director to of the Carnegie Moscow Center told the popular Russian website, “The champagne in November, if it could have been drunk, was to Clinton’s failure and not to Trump’s success.”

Many commentators, including those opposed to the Kremlin, have expressed dismay and surprise at the intensity of the suspicion around Trump’s relationship with Russia, likening it to the "Red Scares" of the Cold War, in which the United States was gripped with fear of communists infiltration.

The uproar around Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador, in particular, has been mocked in Russia as hysterical. Komsomolskaya Pravda, an independent tabloid that is Russia’s most-read newspaper, recently published an article saying American journalists had come to see the ambassador as “the mythical ship, the Flying Dutchman, a meeting with which threatens political death.”

PHOTO: Performers dressed as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin stand in central Moscow on March 3, 2017.
Performers dressed as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin stand in central Moscow on March 3, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

US-Russia relations: It’s complicated

To better understand the recent chilling between the United States and Russia, it helps to look at the long and complicated history between the two countries that has seen long periods of hostility broken by sudden bursts of intensive engagement. The United States and Russia were allies in World War II and then menaced each other with annihilation during the Cold War before falling into a muddled and unequal friendship after the fall of communism in Russia.

The relationship didn't get any simpler when Vladimir Putin abruptly became Russia’s acting president after Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999. Upon officially assuming the top office after winning the 2000 presidential election, Putin initially reached out to the West.

But that began to change in the mid-2000s. Barred by the constitution from running for a third term, Putin temporarily stood aside while his close ally Dmitry Medvedev took over the presidency in 2008. Putin was subsequently appointed prime minister, maintaining his political influence and significance in Moscow.

PHOTO: East German border guards are pictured through the gap after crowds tear down a section of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Nov. 10, 1989.
East German border guards are pictured through the gap after crowds tear down a section of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Nov. 10, 1989.

The Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, with Russia supporting the Syrian regime and the United States favoring Syrian rebels. That same year, Medvedev proposed that Putin stand for the presidency again. The move triggered mass protests in Moscow, in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the biggest challenge Putin has faced to his rule. It was then, some observers argue, that the grudge was born against Hillary Clinton. Putin had publicly accused her at the time of directing the protests.

Putin was re-elected in 2012 and has been Russia’s leader ever since. Relations with the West became tenser as Putin began to take more repressive measures at home.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed the Ukrainian-governed Crimean Peninsula, prompting the international community, including the United States, to impose harsh sanctions against Moscow. These sanctions include asset freezes and travel restrictions against certain Russian individuals, officials and businesses close to the Kremlin, as well as a ban on doing business with Crimea.

Russia responded with its own sanctions against the West and forged closer ties with countries in the East, including China. With Washington and Moscow locked in confrontation over Ukraine and Syria, it became common for analysts to speak of a new Cold War.

Then came Trump. As the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, Trump repeatedly suggested the United States and Russia should work together on certain issues, such as global terrorism. Trump publicly praised Putin and hinted he might consider recognizing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia. The real estate mogul also questioned the need for NATO, which Moscow wishes to see reduced.

PHOTO: People walk through Red Square in Moscow on March 7, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.
People walk through Red Square in Moscow on March 7, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The repercussions of icy relations

The sanctions against Moscow, along with the collapse in global energy prices, caused Russia’s currency to buckle, signaling the start of the country’s ongoing financial crisis.

The recession was particularly tough on ordinary Russians. Some 21.4 million Russians -- or 14.6 percent of the population -- currently live below the poverty line, according to a report published in November 2016 by the World Bank. The number of people in Russia earning less than $10 a day has increased 8 percent in the past year, the report says. And a survey conducted by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics in September 2016 found that 41 percent of Russians had difficulty affording to buy food or clothes.

Trump’s election briefly appeared to reverse Russia’s gloomy economic outlook. Russian stocks briefly gained the most value of any in the world in the months after the 2016 U.S. election. But the same doubts that led Russian state media to rein in its coverage have now hit investors. In February, Russian stocks saw the biggest drop in value of any internationally.

An end to the worst of the financial crisis appears to be in sight. Russia’s central bank has reported the economy is now out of recession as energy prices have lifted and investor confidence has crept back. But with oil prices still low and sanctions likely to stay in place for now, prosperity is far off.

PHOTO: Members of the Presidential Regiment stand outside of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on March 4, 2017 in Moscow.
Members of the Presidential Regiment stand outside of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on March 4, 2017 in Moscow.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What ordinary Russians are saying

According to a Gallup poll ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia was the only OECD-member country where more people hoped Trump would win over those rooting for Clinton. Despite the uproar in Washington over the Trump’s alleged ties to Moscow and the Russian state media’s pullback, that sentiment appears to be holding for now.

Most ordinary Russians who spoke with ABC News on Thursday remained positive about Trump and his administration.

“Trump is ours!” Viktor Osievskii, a 24-year-old builder, told ABC News on a main Moscow street.

“He’s a good man’s man,” said Evgenia Shushina, a server at Coyote Ugly, an American-themed dance bar in Moscow.

Nor were they disappointed with Trump's first weeks in office, but they were hopeful that his election would translate to better relations with the United States.

“We’re waiting to see what will be next. Because he can do very good for Russia and very bad. We are waiting to see actions. We’re not disappointed,” said Marina Zaitsev, 45, of Ekaterinburg. “We are hoping that Russia and America will be friends.”

PHOTO: A man holds flowers while riding a Moscow subway on March 6, 2017.
A man holds flowers while riding a Moscow subway on March 6, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

While Russia’s alleged involvement with Trump has attracted frantic attention in the United States, most Russians remained largely indifferent to the uproar unfolding in Washington. Many expressed fatigue with the constant coverage of Trump on Russian television.

“We’re already sick of all that, to be honest,” Sergei Ivanov, a 37-year-old-driver, told ABC News while walking near the Kremlin with his family.

Most Russians also appeared skeptical of the allegations that their country interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections, something which state media rarely mentions.

In a nation where the president has been in power for 16 years and elections are heavily controlled, many Russians said they feel virtually no connection to how foreign policy is directed.

“For ordinary people, it’s all the same what is going on in America,” Natalya Morozova, a 40-year-old kindergarten teacher in Moscow, told ABC News. “Everything is decided at the top.”

PHOTO: Two women walk along a Moscow street on March 7, 2017 in Russia.*
Two women walk along a Moscow street on March 7, 2017 in Russia.*
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Few Russians who spoke to ABC News on Thursday said they expect sanctions to be lifted rapidly under Trump. In fact, most expressed indifference toward whether Trump would lift the sanctions because they felt their daily living situation would remain the same either way.

"Of course it would be nice. But it’s not a first-order issue,” said Aleksander Nalimov, a 25-year-old internet marketing manager in Moscow. “With sanctions, everyone got used to it."

Nalimov said he's still feeling very positive toward Trump and his administration.

“For me, it’s hope for better relations,” he told ABC News. “But Trump is a very unpredictable guy.”

ABC News' Jeff Costello, James Gordon Meek, Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross, Blair Shiff and Paul H.B. Shin, contributed to this report.

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