As the presidential election in the United States draws closer, Putin’s Russia is paying close attention. Pro-Kremlin talking heads on Russian state television are discussing events in America with an air of both profound interest and deep understanding, treating electoral turmoil abroad as a real-life game of The Sims. In Moscow, President Donald Trump’s potential re-election is still considered the sole beneficial outcome, and the expectations are high.
With Russia having already enjoyed a windfall of geopolitical freebies from the Trump administration, analysts and military experts on Russian state television anticipate that if he is re-elected, Trump will finally pay out like a slot machine. They foresee the removal of sanctions; the restoration of shuttered Russian consulates in the U.S.; and even the recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“[Trump] won’t be tied down by Russiagate in his second term, he will no longer be shackled,” said political scientist Vladimir Kornilov, appearing on Russian state TV show 60 Minutes. “So we’re electing Trump again,” surmised the host of the program, Evgeny Popov.
The Kremlin’s coordinated efforts to aid the incumbent during the 2016 presidential elections are well-documented in the recently released bipartisan report by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Several senators taking part in the investigation pointed out that “Russia is actively interfering again in the 2020 U.S. election to assist Donald Trump, and some of the President's associates are amplifying those efforts. It is vitally important that the country be ready.”
Indeed, there is much to be ready for. In addition to the international purveyors of disinformation, some of the crank calls are coming from inside the house. Enter QAnon, the internet-driven conspiracy theory that portrays Trump as the messiah, sent by God to defeat an alleged cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile Democrats who seek global domination and feast on hormones extracted from children’s blood. Trump described QAnon followers—a group that the FBI has labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat—as “people that love our country.” To date, Trump has reportedly amplified accounts promoting QAnon conspiracy theories at least 216 times.
On Sunday, the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Chris Wallace that he had to Google QAnon to find out what it is, as opposed to requesting an FBI briefing. Unlike him, the Russians are doing their homework. Outlandish QAnon conspiracies are translated into Russian and thoroughly studied by pro-Kremlin propagandists.
Concerned by the negative impact a Biden-Harris presidency would have on the Kremlin’s geopolitical gains under Trump, the Russian state media is test-driving conspiracy theories targeting vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Russian media outlets reluctantly admit that Harris is an exemplary wife and mother, with an impressive career and impeccable credentials, but Russian propagandists have found a few wild QAnon theories to throw at her.
Kremlin-funded state TV channel Rossiya-1, for example, has labeled Kamala Harris “The Protector of Pedophiles,” claiming that “not a single pedophile priest was imprisoned” during her tenure as the San Francisco’s district attorney. In reality, the claims are based on files being released for civil litigation, hardly Harris letting off criminals—an important distinction intentionally twisted by Russian state TV.
At the same time QAnon—and the Russians—have a quaint approach to any derogatory information unearthed about Trump. The magical solution is borderline ingenious in its simplicity. Appearing on a state TV show The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, analyst Dmitry Drobnitsky explained why Trump’s followers are not swayed by the unending scandals plaguing his presidency. He cited the QAnon belief that Trump is a “deeply imperfect Christian,” sent by God to spearhead the battle between good and evil. This approach conveniently side-steps any criticism of the U.S. president’s shortcomings or wrongdoing, since he is supposedly unclean by divine design.
On the other hand, the potential return of former Vice President Joe Biden to the White House fills Kremlin propagandists with dread. This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated by Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Russian defense ministry’s public council and editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine. He is a very senior figure, known to participate in events alongside Russia’s minister of defense, Sergey Shoygu, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the armed forces. Addressing Biden’s presidential candidacy with overt ire, Korotchenko echoed Republicans in the U.S. by insisting that Russia should demand that his fitness for duty be “medically evaluated.” The host, Evgeny Popov, dryly pointed out, “We already evaluated Hillary Clinton during the last elections,” referring to the onslaught of Russian propaganda that questioned the state of Clinton’s health.
Unfortunately for the Kremlin’s propagandists, Biden’s speech at the Democratic National Convention seemed to dispel any notions that his mental health is deteriorating. Journalist Dmitry Galkin noted that Biden’s DNC speech demonstrated that heavily propagandized rumors of his cognitive decline were clearly untrue. Popov said, “Good God, a president of the United States who understands what he is saying! The shining city upon a hill will have a head of state who understands what he utters!.. But will they recognize Crimea [as Russian]?”
“Of course not,” replied Galkin. Popov said, “Then what do we need them for? At least Trump promised to do that.”
Korotchenko weighed in: “It’s important to us that the United States of America is headed by someone who not only understands what he is saying, but realizes his responsibilities as the leader of a nuclear superpower.”
Galkin objected: “Trump doesn’t understand any of that.” but Popov retorted, “Well, at least Trump is the one we elected.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee report showcased the rationale behind such a brazen assertion, meant to mock the American electoral system and to boast of Russia’s outsized influence on the outcome. In addition to its damning conclusions regarding Russia’s election interference, the Senate report contained fawning letters Donald Trump sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The subservient approach taken by Trump towards America’s nemesis was undoubtedly well-known in the Kremlin for years, hence the celebrations on the night of Trump’s election victory. That has been followed by frequent proclamations of a popular state media mantra: “Trump is ours.”
The Kremlin’s armies of bots and trolls won’t hesitate to capitalize on the QAnon lunacy plaguing the ranks of Trump’s supporters. Russian state media experts often describe Trump voters as simple-minded fools and trusting rubes, who care only about their trucks and rifles. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded propaganda networks, RT and Sputnik, uses her frequent appearances on Russian state television to deride the inferior intelligence of Americans in general.
Furthering this belief is the recent announcement that Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis homeowners who pointed guns at protesters earlier this summer, are scheduled to speak at the upcoming Republican National Convention. Reporting from the United States, correspondent of Russia’s state TV channel Rossiya-1 Valentin Bogdanov noted, “American liberals like to portray Trump supporters as half-witted racists. Some people, like this couple from St. Louis, that pointed guns at the protesters walking towards the city mayor’s house, only deepen such a perception.”
With QAnon at the table, the Kremlin’s influence operations are almost too easy. There are conspiracy theories that no longer even appear credible, made in America and boosted by the president himself. With foreign and domestic election interference in full swing, America is in for a wild ride this November—no Q about it.