MOSCOW—The resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have damaged badly, if not destroyed, Moscow’s hopes for restoring good relations with the United States. Certainly the Kremlin seemed to be counting on him.
Hours passed after news broke that Flynn had resigned with an apology to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for discussing, before he took office, U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. But neither the Kremlin, nor the Russian Foreign Ministry (MID) made any comment.
When other officials gathered their wits, it was to spew conspiracy theories.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in the Russian parliament, called this “not just paranoia but something even worse.” On Facebook he wrote: “Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner... or Russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom.”
Another member of the Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted after the announcement: “It was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia.” And then he really went on a rant:
“Flynn was ‘let go’ not because of his failure, but because of the aggressive ‘Russian for the Exit!’ newspaper noise; paranoia and witch hunt,” Pushkov tweeted. “Kicking out Trump was the first act, the next target will be Trump himself.”
To understand this reaction, one must understand just how much confidence top Russian officials seem to have had that Flynn was their man in Washington.
Less than two years ago, Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was fired by the Obama administration in 2014, had taken a job as an analyst for the Kremlin-sponsored outlet Russia Today, RT. In December 2015, he was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner celebrating RT’s tenth anniversary on the air. So, it’s not surprising that many in Russia saw his resignation as in some respects a plot against Moscow.
Russian experts argued about who was to blame for losing Russia-friendly Flynn. Asked about the Kremlin’s silence, Igor Bunin, the head of the Center for Political Technologies, told The Daily Beast, “We do not have to make any comments. All we need is to live through this unpleasant time and see how Mr. Trump falls under the influence of Washington establishment.”
Would President Trump continue investing his political assets in fixing U.S. relations with Russia?
“He will search for a safe platform for working with Russia; but he will be very careful now,” Bunin said.
Dmitry Oreshkin of the independent Moscow think tank Mercator suggests there’s a blind spot in Moscow, since this kind of thing could never happen under Putin.
“The Kremlin still believes that the problem is some ‘establishment’ without seeing that there are strong institutions and an independent press in the United States,” Oreshkin said. “Russian foreign-policy makers have a rather primitive KGB approach.” They think that if they give former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder a job at Gazprom or dangle deals with Rosneft in front of Trump things will work out. “And if not, some compromising tapes would convince Trump,” Oreshkin said, explaining Moscow’s general approach.
So, for the moment, instead of addressing the Flynn resignation the Russian foreign ministry is commenting via a phone call two well-known Russian pranksters called Vovan and Lexus made to Maxine Waters, a Democratic representative from California and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who has taken strong anti-Putin positions.
The callers claimed to be Ukraine’s president. Waters, reportedly surprised, was noncommittal, then listened politely as they strung out an increasingly fanciful tale that eventually included a Russian invasion of Gabon in West Africa, and a claim, as RT reported, that Moscow had “hacked the election system” in the fictitious country of Limpopo, completely reversing the outcome and installing its puppet Ai Bolit as president. Since the situation there has become even “worse than in the U.S.,” the ousted president of Limpopo was considering fleeing to Ukraine, they said. The names come from well-known children’s stories in Russia.
Waters remained noncommittal and said she would ask for more information on all this. (For all she knew, her interlocutor had lost his mind, and she was looking for a polite way out of the conversation.)
But the Russian foreign ministry was gleeful. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova tweeted: “President Ai Bolyt from Lim-Po-Po country... Russian fairytales are becoming truth. God, don’t leave America!”
Mocking a United States congresswoman and hoping to improve relationships with United States at the same time would seem a strange approach to diplomacy, unless one understands just how completely many Russians had been led to believe that the Republican administration of Donald Trump was on their side, and vice versa.
Earlier, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov had told reporters that the allegation that Flynn unethically and perhaps illegally discussed critical matters of state with the Russian ambassador before taking office “was wrong.” In a recent interview, Peskov said: “We have already said that they [such talks] did not happen.”
“It is not surprising that MID made no comments about the resignation,” Oreshkin told The Daily Beast. “Flynn just confirmed that Putin's press person was a liar—and that does not surprise anybody in Russia any longer, that is his job.”