MOSCOW — When Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky hosted a champagne party in the country’s parliament to celebrate the real estate magnate’s surprise victory.
“To a new domestic and foreign policy in the U.S.!” Zhirinovsky, a nationalist firebrand and longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin, said as he clinked glasses with officials in Moscow. “And to a speedy improvement of U.S.-Russia relations!”
Four years after that ceremony, with Trump vying for reelection in a bitterly contested vote next week, Zhirinovsky says he has lost faith in the former reality TV star who spoke of a new era of cooperation with Putin and Russia.
“Trump’s done nothing good for Russia,” Zhirinovsky told RFE/RL. Still, he said, “Trump will win on November 3. We’re sure of that.”
Zhirinovsky’s conflicted stance on Trump’s possible reelection chimes with a broader sense of resignation toward U.S. foreign policy that analysts say has become especially prevalent in Russia since 2016.
When asked whether Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden would be better for Russia, nearly two thirds of respondents in a recent poll by the independent Levada Center said it doesn’t matter.
Another survey released in September showed that 23 percent of Russians view Trump positively and 43 percent negatively. More than half of those polled had never heard of Biden before.
Russia has hung like a specter over U.S. politics for almost half a decade, infusing debates over Trump’s ascension to the presidency and continuously rebuffing accusations that it was involved. In turn, Trump has dismissed claims of Moscow’s outsize role in his election as a “witch-hunt,” even as he watched several former aides indicted.
‘Why Should Russians Care?’
But ahead of the November 3 election in the United States, as Americans steel themselves for a bitterly contested ballot and the possibility of a legal battle over its results, Russians are more bothered by problems at home. The coronavirus pandemic has hit Russia hard, and real wages have fallen for the sixth year straight. Given such domestic woes, the political standoff across the Atlantic doesn’t command the attention it once did.
“Why should Russians care?” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin. “The United States is just another country. I don’t believe anybody expects any change regardless of who will win.”
That may be the crux of it. In 2016, Zhirinovsky was far from alone in cheering for Trump. Many in Russia viewed his candidacy as a real chance to improve fraught relations with the United States and scrap the Western sanctions that have hobbled Russia’s economy since its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
In the build-up to the 2016 U.S. election, Trump described Putin as “very much of a leader” and pledged to normalize ties with Russia. In exchange, Russian state TV channels were full of praise for Trump, while slamming his erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton as Moscow’s nemesis.
“Trump hacked the rotten American system of elites, played by its rules and became president,” Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov declared in his flagship news roundup after the 2016 election. The image accompanying his report depicted two champagne glasses clinking – an allusion to the Zhirinovsky party taking place in Russia’s parliament.
The effect of this TV messaging in 2016 was clearly borne out in surveys. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, three consecutive polls by the Levada Center showed a growing proportion of Russians rooting for Trump over Clinton, a trajectory that coincided with the concerted state TV campaign to paint Trump as Russia’s savior.
This time round, says Levada director Lev Gudkov, the relative lack of interest in the upcoming U.S. vote stems from its less prominent place in state TV coverage. Only two demographics are following the election, according to Gudkov: officials who look to the Kremlin for guidance and pensioners who watch state TV. Among Russia’s youth, only around 5 or 6 percent are paying attention, Gudkov says – five times fewer than among their grandparents’ generation.
“Against the backdrop of Russia’s international isolation and an obvious crisis of relations with European countries and the U.S., [TV propaganda] tries to shut out any information that may contain criticism of Russia,” Gudkov told RFE/RL. “There’s a mood of negativity which suppresses interest and expectations in the U.S. election.”
That said, Gudkov notes that the U.S. election is the second- or third-most covered news event on Russian TV, and among survey respondents who said they’re following the election buildup, three times as many are rooting for Trump as for Biden, a veteran politician far less known in Russia than the incumbent president.
A Known Quantity
But to the Kremlin, which does not seem to share the apathy professed by swaths of the Russian public, Biden is a known quantity. During his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden claims to have engaged in a particularly terse exchange with Putin on a visit to the Kremlin in 2011. “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden recalled telling the Russian president in an interview with The New Yorker. “He looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.'”
Lukyanov, the foreign policy analyst, says staff at the Kremlin “are not such deep strategists,” but among officials and analysts in Russia, “there’s a more or less consensus view that, even if Biden wins, there’ll be no return to the status quo ante. America already shifted its paradigm toward less expansionism and more inward looking [politics].”
While Trump had promised better relations with Russia in 2016, many Russians were disappointed to see those plans come to naught. His own intelligence officials concluded that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election, and now say it is doing so again. There’s bipartisan support in Congress for ratcheting up sanctions against Russia.
And as Trump’s term draws to a close, U.S.-Russia relations are at a nadir. The last significant arms control treaty between the two countries is set to expire in February, and negotiations to extend or renew it have sputtered. All this has impacted Trump’s reputation in Russia, where TV spoofs have poked fun as much at his catastrophic failure to overhaul the Russia relationship as at the wall-to-wall U.S. coverage of the so-called Russiagate scandal.
“Many hopes emerged” in 2016, says Ivan Kurilla, a historian of Russian-American relations at the European University in St. Petersburg. This time, he told RFE/RL, “I do not expect U.S. elections to affect Russia in any way, as I do not expect U.S. policy toward Russia will significantly change.”
In the end, says Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, it may come down to “Trump fatigue.”
“Trump’s 2016 victory was a delightful surprise for the Kremlin. His rhetoric on Russia was completely different from that of his predecessors: no criticism, no preaching, no promoting of liberal values,” Stanovaya wrote in a recent column. Now, “the feeling in Moscow is that if Trump cannot pull Russia out of its spiral of confrontation with the United States, no one can.”