Russia reacted to the end of the U.S. special counsel’s investigation with glee.
After two years playing defense over the probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, officials in Moscow went on the attack, claiming vindication based on the U.S. attorney general’s assertion that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III “did not establish” that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with Russians.
The celebrations were despite the investigation having led to charges against 25 Russians and even though Mueller’s report has not been released.
“A humiliation for the United States and its political elite,” Russian Sen. Alexey Pushkov wrote on Twitter on Monday. “All of the charges were pulled out of thin air. The media played a shameful role in this incendiary campaign built on lies. The conspiracy theorists have been discredited. From now on, only idiots can believe them.”
Pushkov’s remarks reflect the official line broadcast by state-controlled media Monday: that the U.S. media hyped a bogus story about possible collusion between Trump and the Kremlin to turn the American people against Russia and sabotage the administration’s efforts to forge better ties with Moscow. That’s been a common refrain since 2017.
“There were so many fake scandals,” a reporter on Channel One, a major state-owned network, told viewers Monday. “But will viewers hear the rebuttals now?”
The final report from Mueller, which was submitted to the Justice Department on Friday, remains confidential.
No Americans have been charged with working with Russians to influence the election, but Mueller helped expose a willingness by Trump and his campaign to capitalize on Moscow’s help, and then lie about it.
The special counsel also outlined evidence for and against an obstruction of justice case, Atty. Gen. William Barr wrote Sunday in a letter to Congress. Barr said after reading the report, he determined the facts don’t show Trump committed a crime.
“The Kremlin has always maintained that there was no collusion,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow think tank, told the Los Angeles Times. “Since the Kremlin generally expects no good news to come out of the U.S. these days, you could say they may have been surprised.”
Outside the White House, few parties had more vested interest in Mueller’s findings than Russia. The country’s hacking and meddling in the 2016 election have been invoked by Congress to justify additional waves of sanctions.
But Mueller’s report confirmed the allegations of interference in the election, according to Barr’s letter.
Of the 25 Russians charged through the investigation, some were accused of spreading disinformation on social media; others were charged with hacking Democratic Party and campaign staff, then releasing emails through WikiLeaks and other intermediaries to undermine Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton.
Russian officials expressed concern that the investigation continued to assert those charges, which the Kremlin denies.
“We have not seen the actual report, almost no one has, so we are unable to comment on it in detail,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday. “We have seen a little extract, a small resume, that doesn’t actually say anything new other than there was no collusion.”
Even on Channel One, where Barr’s letter was celebrated, there was a note of caution. “The conclusions have been made, but does that mean everything is over? It seems not. The idea that our nation allegedly tried to influence the U.S. election has not been abandoned,” the channel’s U.S. correspondent lamented.
In the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev said Mueller’s findings present Trump with an opportunity to reset U.S.-Russia relations and pursue the warm ties he spoke of in the 2016 campaign — comments that deeply endeared Trump to Russians.
Overall, the end of the Mueller investigation is a “net positive” for the Kremlin, said Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign policy analyst. Moscow must downplay Mueller’s findings on election interference and play up Barr’s summary that the investigation did not establish that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia in the interference.
“This removes the political constraints on Trump that have prevented him from organizing very warm and beautiful summits with Putin,” Frolov said.
“Perhaps one in Washington by the end of this year, followed by Trump attending the Victory Day parade in Moscow in 2020,” he said, referring to Russia’s annual grandiose military parade.
But Kosachev said Russia must approach the situation carefully. Russia was taken in by Trump’s friendly campaign rhetoric, but turned on him once he took office and his administration began to pursue very different policies.
“There is an opportunity to reset our relations but the question is whether or not Trump will take the risk,” Kosachev wrote on Facebook. “However, there are now overt ‘hawks,’ such as [Secretary of State Michael R.] Pompeo and [national security advisor] John Bolton, who should also be treated as proof that Russia will be treated tough.”
Trenin said the impact of Mueller’s findings are most likely going to be negative. And those who oppose Russia have a long list of other items to draw from: Syria, Venezuela, Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea in November, and the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil in March 2018.
“Trump’s opponents will not be convinced,” Trenin said. “They will double down, rather than abdicate, and Russia will be the prime target. I expect much harsher sanctions from Congress… Russia will be kicked around with more vehemence because collusion was not proven.”