FRENEMIES?

Inside Russia's Trump Summit Propaganda War

Russian propaganda continues to preach hatred and suspicion for the United States. But there may still be hope by Putin and others at the top that Trump can be played.

MOSCOW – Not long before the Kremlin announced the date and place of the Putin-Trump summit, one of the groups of activists that call themselves “Putin Squads” recorded on video a ritual burial. Among the items they interred were a photograph of Donald Trump, an American flag – and a picture of Ivanka Trump. The event took place in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, and this particular collection of aging Vladimir Putin fans told the world that by burying the American flag they had buried the “sponsor of all the world’s ills.” Indeed, they called this a cleansing exercise.

Clearly, despite the frequent sympathy President Trump has shown for Russia and for Putin, not all of the Russian president’s fans are inclined to reciprocate. According to this month’s poll by VTSIOM, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 56 percent of the respondents do not believe that Putin’s summit with Trump in Helsinki will bring any positive result for their country.  By burying Trump, Putin’s fans also dispose of their hopes for Russia’s peace with America under the current leadership in Washington.

Holding up Trump’s portrait, a middle-aged activist in Krasnodar with “Only Putin” on his lilac-colored shirt said, “This is Trump, the entire world knows this man as a warmonger.” The activist bent down and put the picture of Trump’s face on the bottom of the little improvised grave: “Here is his place.”

The little group cheered as the picture of “the world’s most bloodthirsty woman,” Ivanka Trump was placed in the hold on top of her father’s. (There was no explanation of the sobriquet.) “They will rot!” they shouted as a young man shoveled dirt on the American symbols as well as portraits of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whom they called “the State Department’s agent,” and the exiled programmer Pavel Durov, creator of the banned encrypted message service Telegram.

Although the little funeral was a novel presentation, the general sentiments are familiar throughout Russia. For many years the Kremlin-controlled propaganda machine has been promoting hostility toward the United States, pushing the idea that for as long as the U.S. does not treat Russia as an equal, we will not respect Americans or their president.

After a brief moment of great expectations following Trump’s election, the traditional hostilities returned. And the Kremlin has been preparing Russia for the next stage in its great game: the July 16 Helsinki summit. As the presidents get ready to sit down face to face, some of the most-viewed television shows in Russia have been discussing the country’s chances of coming out ahead. Some phrase their questions carefully: “Do you believe that Trump really wants to improve his relations with Russia?” Others openly condemn what are termed Washington’s double standards in its attitude toward the Kremlin’s policies.

Last week’s visit to Moscow by six U.S. senators and a member of congress over the July 4 holiday is a particular case in point. After embarrassing themselves by seeming to fawn over Russia during the visit, several bent over backwards on their return to Washington trying to prove that, in private, they were really tough.

But the Russian media were on to their game from the get-go. Olga Skabeyeva, the presenter of a popular political talk show called “60 Minutes,” referred to the American delegation with bitter irony: “It turns out these kind-hearted people had an attitude before visiting Moscow,” she said as she began to air interviews with the senators talking about the Russian threat when they were still in the United States, before their trip here. Sen. Steve Daines talked about “Russian aggression” and Sen. Richard Shelby talked about Putin’s plans to push until he reconstructs “the old Russian empire.”

On the show, Russia’s senior foreign policy expert, Konstantin Kosachev, senator at the Federation Council, complained that all America’s officials shared the same views for Russia, that Russian authorities could not find a single ally in Washington: “I spoke with them [GOP senators],” he said. “The most horrible thing is that they sincerely believe that Russia has interfered in their elections.” (This is, indeed, the unanimous analysis of the U.S. intelligence agencies, fully accepted by Congress, and even, reluctantly, by Trump. The only, and key, question is whether he or people in his campaign were legally complicit in the Russian operation.)

“We had no chance to discuss Ukraine, Syria and North Korea!” said Kosachev. “They first want to see how we behave before their congressional elections next November, dismissing our attempts to take apart the [accusations of] ‘meddling.’ So, frankly, the negotiations did not succeed, I will tell you honestly.”

The message Kosachev and the prime time talk show sent to Russian viewers of Channel One was simple: Moscow demonstrated its good will by letting U.S. officials visit Russia, even those who have been on its black list. (They did not specify, but analysts believe the one in question was Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat.) But in response, Americans stayed hostile to the us, and Washington’s messengers continue to blame Russia for helping Trump win the elections.

One of the lines floated by the senators was that the U.S. is a “competitor” of Russia, not an “adversary.” But one of the oldest anti-American voices in the Russian parliament, a deputy from Communist Party named Leonid Kalashnikov, was having none of that. He bragged that he had not applauded Americans in 20 years: “I have always said that they were our enemies; they have always cheated us, lied to Russia,  they will always act in the interests of their own country.”

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Kalashnikov fired on: “Really, if we speak seriously, all countries interfere with each other’s politics; counter-intelligence agencies conduct that kind of meddling everywhere.”

(It is probably worth noting here that former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in his recent memoir, where he says he has little doubt Russian interference elected Trump, also cites a report by Carnegie Mellon researcher Dov Levin indicating U.S. efforts to interfere in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. Clapper then says, “Simplistically, I always viewed us as the ‘good guys,’ with at least noble intentions.” Russians don’t see it that way.)

Kalashnikov's remarks dripped with irony: “We should have told them [U.S. officials]. let’s liquidate the CIA, let’s liquidate our FSB [Russian federal security service], SVR [Russian foreign intelligence service]. Would they consider interference in our nuclear weapon strategy less influential than meddling with elections? Talk like that would be totally stupid.”

Kalashnikov, like many Putin fans, feels angry when the Kremlin is criticized for empowering Russia while all Washington wants for the U.S. is exactly the same thing, to make America stronger and richer. Nobody says it on Russian state TV but many understand that Russia’s economy of $1.5 trillion dollars look puny, even irrelevant compared to the economy of just one of America’s 50 states, California, with its $2.7 trillion dollar economy. \

What Russia’s most viewed TV talk shows never discuss is precisely why the Russian economy is so weak. Kremlin propaganda does not like to look in the mirror and recognize the fact that political pressure, pressure on business, non-transparent and corrupt management is why Russia is really failing to grow strong and reliable as an economy.

A few independent newspapers refer to the latest investigative project  by Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealing that President Putin, his proxies and family members control $24 billion in assets, making them, not their fellow citizens, among the richest people in the world.

So, in advance of the summit on Monday, it suits Putin’s camp and its experts to hear Trump described as “unpredictable,” constantly taking offense, and “insane.”

“The Kremlin’s propaganda has created a scarecrow to represent a collective image of Trump and America,” says Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor of Echo of Moscow. “Traditionally, authorities here have channeled all public frustration with poor salaries and pensions into hate for some scary evil outside of Russia,” and that continues.

Bychkova suggested that, “At the summit Putin and Trump will agree on Syria – the Russian military will stay and Americans withdraw – and that will be presented to the Russian audience as one more victory for Putin.”

On coming back from Russia Sen. John Kennedy told CNN that he had told The Kremlin: “Stop screwing with our election, get out of eastern Ukraine and let them self-determine ... Get out of Crimea and let Crimea self-determine ... Stop screwing around in Syria and help us settle the mess. And ... do not allow Iran to get a foothold in southern Syria, because if you do that, there's going to be another war that Israel's not going to stand for." The senator also said that dealing with Russian authorities was the same as dealing with Russian mafia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he found it “hard to understand such words, I don’t know in what context they were used.”  But he added, “We do not wear rose colored glasses and realize perfectly well that the American political establishment live in a) a prison of stereotypes and b) under scary Russophobe pressure."

Meanwhile, U.S. military ships, including the USS Mount Whitney flagship have entered the Black Sea to begin NATO Sea Breeze exercises with Ukraine. Once again, the Kremlin is preparing TV audiences for any development, with more than a hint of danger. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko assured Russians, “We have taken all necessary measures. If the need arises, we will be strengthening our capacity in the region.” The Russian diplomat added that Russian authorities disapproved of NATO’s military activities nearby.

The Baltics are another issue. Finland, of course, is very near the Baltics, which border Russia and were occupied by it for many decades in the 20th century. Moscow deeply resents the membership of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in NATO, and Grushko claimed the Baltic region “used to be the calmest in military terms over dozens of years.” The official did not explain why, if the Baltic region is no longer considered calm, both Russian and the U.S. security services chose Finland for the Putin-Trump summit.

The agenda of the Putin and Trump summit was bigger than Ukraine, Syria or any other issues officially declared in the reports, Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov told The Daily Beast. “Russian authorities [as opposed to Putin fans] believe that Trump is a victim, a hostage of press and the U.S. establishment but they are still happy and excited that Putin will have a sit down meeting with the American leader; it is going to be interesting as both are very much alike,” Venediktov said. “The real mutual agenda is to break Europe’s unity.”

The NATO summit begins on Wednesday.