What a difference 40 days make. When Donald Trump was inaugurated, Russian media fell over themselves hailing the start of a promising era in U.S.-Russian relations and celebrating a charismatic new U.S. president.
But President Trump’s first address to Congress was greeted with notably muted coverage in Moscow on Wednesday — yet another public sign of the Kremlin’s cooling regard for him.
The turnaround comes amid heightened scrutiny in Washington over the Trump camp’s ties to Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies determined last year that Moscow had sought to interfere in the presidential campaign, and the FBI is probing whether there was collusion between Russian operatives and Trump’s campaign — something the White House has flatly denied.
At the same time, Trump has dialed back some positions that won Kremlin applause during the campaign and his transition to taking office, including an earlier assertion that he would “look at” at accepting Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Some Russia-watchers question whether Moscow’s arms-length stance reflects a genuine change of heart over Trump, or is simply a bid to reduce growing attention being paid in Washington to the U.S. president’s eye-catching affinity with the autocratic Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Trump himself has repeatedly dismissed any Russia connection as “a ruse” and “fake news.”
Russian state-run media’s enthusiastic coverage of the new U.S. president ended almost overnight after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in mid-February that Trump had “made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea.”
Russian outlets had previously been overt cheerleaders for the American commander in chief. Upon his inauguration, the state-run Channel One trumpeted: “My Way.” The newspaper Izvestia declared: “Trump Sticks to His Word.”
Now those same outlets make scant — or disapproving — mention of him.
Following Trump’s high-profile Tuesday speech to both houses of Congress, an op-ed in the Kommersant daily said the address "did not clarify” what Russia should expect from the Trump administration. Russia-U.S. ties, commentator Sergei Strokan wrote, have become “a game of ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’”
The Rossiya 24 news channel provided only a brief summary of the speech, noting that the U.S. president had not mentioned relations with Russia.
“He mostly talked about domestic politics,” the Wednesday morning anchor said laconically.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took a similarly low-key approach in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, saying it was no surprise that Trump had not mentioned Russia in his address.
“Naturally, he’s dealing with American affairs,” said Peskov. “Our President Putin is dealing with Russian affairs. This is absolutely normal.”
Trump’s oft-expressed admiration for Putin — which began on the campaign trail and carried over into the early weeks of his administration — puzzled and alarmed many in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Prominent Russia hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly urged Trump to take a more skeptical view of Kremlin motives.
Although Trump insists that friendly relations with Russia could lead to a partnership against Islamic State militants, last month’s messy ouster of Michael Flynn as national security advisor complicated any talk of teaming up with Moscow. Flynn, a retired general who was friendly to Putin, was forced to resign after it emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about having pre-inaugural discussions about U.S. sanctions with Russia’s envoy to Washington.
Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen, a sharp Putin critic, said that “from the Russian point of view, the romance is over.”
“He hasn’t lifted the sanctions, which Russia was very much hoping he would,” she told Slate magazine this week. “He’s rapidly becoming the enemy on Russian TV.”
In recent weeks, Putin has signaled at least limited willingness to test Trump. Last month, a Russian spy ship was spotted in international waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard, and a Russian warplane buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea.
And there have been public diplomatic divergences between Moscow and Washington. On Wednesday, Russia — with Chinese backing — blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution to punish Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, for using chemical weapons against his own people. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the Russian veto “outrageous.”
Peskov, in the call with reporters on Thursday, suggested that when it came to the overall direction of the U.S.-Russian relations, the next move would be up to the White House.
“We are full of patience, waiting when statements will be followed by actions that will actually let us understand what we should and could focus on in developing bilateral Russia-U.S. ties,” he said.
Although the pro-Trump fervor in Moscow has largely faded from public view, some boosters of the U.S. president are still comparing him favorably with President Obama, a frequent target of Russian barbs. Russian senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted that Trump’s speech lacked the “angry stupidities about Russia” that he described as standard practice for Obama.
Others in Moscow have echoed Trump’s previous harsh assessments of the U.S. intelligence community. In an interview, former Russian lawmaker Sergei Markov suggested darkly that the president was being punished by the U.S. “deep state” — a conspiratorial term that generally describes influential members of the bureaucracy or military wielding a hidden hand in government policy — for trying to improve relations with Russia.
“They want to overthrow him,” Markov said in an interview.
Trump’s pro-Russia stance has rattled European leaders, who were deeply disconcerted when he declared earlier this year, in newspaper interviews with two European outlets, that he had equal regard for Putin and for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a close American ally. That followed a string of disparaging remarks about key institutions like the NATO alliance and the European Union.
The Trump administration sought to calm those fears with European trips last month by Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, but in the wake of the Flynn affair, many Europeans wondered whether Pence in particular really spoke for the president.
White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has spearheaded White House skepticism about the postwar U.S.-led Western order, spoke with the German ambassador to Washington before the Pence and Mattis trips. The Reuters news agency said the German envoy was left with the impression that Trump still considers the European Union a failing project, but the White House said the call was too brief for a serious discussion of international affairs.
Special correspondent Mirovalev reported from Moscow and Times staff writer King from Washington.