As soon as news reached Moscow that Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had resigned after it became clear he had lied to the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, hawkish Russian lawmakers began to hyperventilate. Shadowy elements in Washington were trying to ruin not just Flynn, but the entire Russian-American relationship, they said. Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Duma’s foreign-affairs committee, put out a statement, reported by The Washington Post, saying Flynn’s ouster was a “kind of a negative signal for normalizing the Russian-American dialogue.” “Flynn was forced to leave after an aggressive campaign by U.S. mainstream media. ‘Daily News’ front page ‘Russian for the exit’ tells it all,” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, in English. In another, Russian tweet, he called the investigations into Flynn “a witch hunt.” In yet another, he suggested that “the next target is Trump himself.”
It was a rather extraordinary display: Russian officials defending an American national security adviser as if he were one of their own. Flynn’s resignation seemed to have caught not just Washington, but Moscow, off-guard. And now that Flynn, a paid speaker at Russia Today’s anniversary dinner and, apparently, a frequent interlocutor of the Russian ambassador to the U.S., was gone, whither the Trump administration’s special relationship to Russia?
But it’s too soon for critics of Trump’s policy to celebrate, much as it was too soon for conservative Moscow to celebrate Trump’s election and swearing in.
Flynn’s resignation is certainly a setback for the Russians. “I think it’s a loss for Moscow in the sense that Flynn is a person who was in contact with the ambassador and maybe someone else, I don’t know, and so they had developed some kind of common language, which is very useful to starting negotiations,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, an independent political consultant in Moscow who once advised Putin. “He’s a firm person, and is that kind of conservative that is beloved in Moscow. He’s easy to understand.” With Flynn gone, it would appear that Moscow had lost an “in” to the Trump administration.
But that would overstate the case. “They have other entrees,” one senior State Department official told me. Flynn was just a messenger, in other words, and there are other people in the West Wing who are equally motivated to strike some kind of grand bargain with Putin, including White House adviser Steve Bannon and the president himself. And if Trump and Putin both want the deal done, it won’t be too hard to find another go-between. The one real problem, Pavlovsky points out, is timing. If the Kremlin and the White House don’t move quickly, “America and Russia could lose the opportunity to lower the pressure on the relationship,” he said. “If there’s no agreement in six months, then it will never be reached because then our presidential campaign begins”—Putin is up for reelection again in 2018—“and Putin won’t be able to be soft.” Otherwise, Pavlovsky added, “I don’t see a big loss in this.”
In a note to clients, Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group and head of its Eurasia practice, expressed a similar sentiment. While Flynn’s resignation will “increase short-term obstacles,” he wrote, it is “unlikely to yield major changes in the substance of US foreign policy. … [S]upport for a détente with Russia runs much deeper in this administration than Flynn. Exhibit A is President Donald Trump. He has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a desire to improve relations since at least the beginning of the campaign. Reset with Russia is one of Trump’s signature issues, and is very unlikely to evaporate.”
In the end, Flynn’s resignation didn’t even make the Russian evening news.
The larger issue here is that Putin has gotten a handful with Trump, and that his election has brought new and unforeseen problems for the Kremlin. Despite all the over-the-top pleasantries, sanctions against Russia haven’t been lifted and Trump has run into quite a bit of resistance on the Hill, even among fellow Republicans. Trump’s saber-rattling on Iran and occasional, though inconsistent, threats to cancel the Iran deal have apparently made the Russians nervous, according to American and Russian sources. Russia helped negotiate that deal and does not want to see it undone, with the Iranians then possibly hurtling toward a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran is an old ally of the Russians, and Trump’s bluster has put Putin in the awkward position of being stuck between a potential new partner maligning an old and trusted one.
Then there’s Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Russia is home to roughly 20 million Muslims—some 5 percent of Russia’s population—and, according to the logic Trump and his allies presented for the ban, Russia should’ve been on that list. The Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers, were from Russia, as are some 2,500 jihadi fighters in Syria, according to Putin’s own estimate. Russia itself has been the victim of homegrown Islamist terror—including bombings of Russian passenger planes, and the Moscow metro. Trump’s executive order puts Russia, alongside whom he wants to fight ISIS, into an awkward position. To wit: Ramzan Kadyrov, the violent and unpredictable head of Chechnya—a largely Muslim republic inside Russia—has already gotten into a public spat with the chief rabbi of Moscow over any purported connection between Islam and terrorism.
The uncertainty that Trump has brought to the United States is spilling into even the places that he hoped to do business with. And, right about now, the Kremlin might be realizing that it could have overreached and acted a little too brazenly.
That said, this wouldn’t be the first time Putin overreached or acted brazenly, and has navigated the resulting chaos just fine. This is nothing compared to his overreaching to stop the Maidan revolution in Kiev in 2014. At first, Putin pushed then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to take a harsh line with the pro-Western protestors. After Yanukovych’s ouster, Putin went as far as annexing one chunk of Ukrainian territory and destabilizing another over the course of three years and at the cost of nearly 10,000 lives. And yet, Putin was able to maneuver out of the isolation in which he found himself in 2014, sanctions and all. He parlayed fears over terrorism and uncontrolled migrant flows from the Middle East into an uneasy understanding with the West, even as he continued to work assiduously to undermine it. The ouster of Michael Flynn is, by comparison, chump change.
Putin knows how to play a weak or weakened hand well. His security agencies may have worked to elect Trump, but they never expected he would win. His victory was a pleasant surprise. Putin could’ve worked just fine if a woman he reviled as hostile was in the White House instead. The image of an external enemy does wonders for Putin at home, where Russians, prompted by their television screens, rally around the flag.
A little more turmoil in the White House only serves to underscore the point the Kremlin and its faithful media messengers have emphasized for years: Western democracy is a circus, an inefficient mess at best. Do you really want your country run in such a sloppy fashion? And even if the bet on Trump doesn’t pay off and he turns into an enemy, he will continue to serve as the traditional foil of the evil Western leader bent on humiliating the Motherland. If Trump’s administration continues imploding or, worse, fails, it will reinforce the narrative of a West in chaos. It’s hard to see how Putin loses this one—he has plausible deniability, and, ostensibly, no dog in this fight. As his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “This is a domestic issue of the United States.”