During any other presidency, it would be highly unusual for the Russian media to be preoccupied with the American midterm elections, but in the time of Donald Trump, Russian politicians and pundits have taken a keen interest in the races for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
As the realization dawns on them that the Putin-friendly president cannot or will not lift past and future sanctions on the faltering Russian economy, as many had expected, they appear to be focusing their hopes—and fears—on the Hill.
Reports in the state-controlled media betray the Kremlin’s apparent concern that President Trump will be impeached if the Democrats win control of the House. They describe the midterms as “the electoral death match.” Evgeny Popov, the host of the Russian state TV show 60 Minutes, posed a provocative question to Sergei Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States: “Will anything change in November? Let’s jokingly assume that we interfere and all goes well for Trump.” Kislyak tergiversates about the potential outcome and cautiously warns Popov: “Let’s not joke about that. Americans have lost their sense of humor.”
Politician Sergei Stankevich opines that Trump is in dire straits, as the Republicans are poised to lose their House majority. He says the GOP’s opponents criticize Trump’s decidedly soft approach to Russia based on him being “charmed or covertly pressured by Putin.” Russian state media portrays the GOP’s push for additional sanctions as an attempt to distance themselves from this perception.
While the Russians scoff at Trump’s inability to overcome the resistance from the other branches of the government, they fear that dealing with a Democratic-controlled House and Trump’s potential replacement would become an even bigger quagmire for the Kremlin.
Of particular concern to Russian government officials, politicians, and experts is a bipartisan Senate bill, described by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as the “sanctions bill from Hell.” It proposes to ban investments in Russian energy projects, sovereign debt, and national banks, and the fear is that it might be pushed through like a previous sanctions bill a year ago that had such massive bipartisan support Trump felt compelled, however reluctantly, to sign it.
The full text of the proposed legislation, entitled the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018,” was released by the U.S. Congress on Aug. 14—but it was circulated by the Russian media one week earlier. And the outrage against these “draconian” and “apocalyptic” measures was everywhere.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the sanctions, if implemented, could be a “declaration of economic war,” vowing to retaliate “by economic, political and, in case of necessity, other methods.” And that kind of talk has been echoed widely, even though the majority of the Kremlin’s analysts, politicians, government officials, and pundits refused to believe that the worst-case scenario is truly possible.
The editor-in-chief of Russia's National Defense magazine, Igor Korotchenko, appearing on the Russian state TV show 60 Minutes, said that such sanctions would be considered a declaration of war against Russia. But he added that their implementation would be “impossible,” since Boeing is dependent on titanium, which it buys from Russia, and NASA would be lost without Russian rocket engines. Korotchenko proposed shuttering U.S.-funded NGOs functioning in Russia and “selling Russian advanced weapons systems to dozens of countries that want them,” including India, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
The midterm elections are perceived as another mechanism of influence that could prevent the implementation of the most severe sanctions against Russia.
Stankevich, the head of the international affairs committee for the Party of Growth, argued that the very fate of Trump is at stake in the midterm elections. Vitaly Tretyakov, dean of Moscow State University’s School of Television, insisted with a certain note of irony that Russia should act decisively in response to the new sanctions, pressuring Trump by threatening to withdraw Russian support in the midterms. Tretyakov proposed: “Let’s turn this into a headache for Trump. If you want us to support you in the elections, which we’re said to be arranging, then do what we say.”
Stankevich argued with the state TV host, Olga Skabeeva, who repeated the popular Russian mantra “Trump is ours.” Stankevich described Trump as a “psychologically unstable swashbuckler” and said Russian politics should prioritize “the containment of madness.” He stressed that the sanctions bill “crossed two red lines” Americans avoided in the past by targeting Gazprom and Russia’s sovereign debt. Stankevich cautioned that doing so would spiral into an all-out conflict between the United States and Russia.
Military expert Sergei Sudakov said the biggest threat facing Russia is the possibility of being disconnected from SWIFT, the coding system vital to international money transfers, which would affect the country’s key foreign exchange earners in the oil and gas industry. Sudakov claimed that the Russians are actively developing a strategy of using Chinese hubs to circumvent Russia’s potential loss of its access to SWIFT. MP Leonid Kalashnikov asserted that he is still glad that Trump was elected, because under Hillary Clinton Russia would have been cut off from SWIFT a long time ago.
Karen Shakhnazarov, a prominent film director and a fixture on Russian talk shows, argued that Russia should form a military and a political alliance with China in order to destroy America’s financial system. Russia recently liquidated most of its holdings in U.S. Treasury securities. Some Russian experts are hoping that China could be convinced to follow suit. (The scale of holdings is not really comparable: Before Russia started dumping its securities in March, it held $96.1 billion; China holds some $1.18 trillion.)
A gaggle of pro-Kremlin talking heads voiced a series of other proposals Russia should implement in retaliation for the U.S. sanctions, such as “start arresting Americans,” shut down American businesses operating in Russia, form an anti-American front with the enemies of the United States, steal Western technologies and confiscate funds from Russia’s nouveaux riches to compensate for the losses caused by the sanctions.
Even as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces ponder the possible retaliatory measures, most of them say they believe that the threat of the “sanctions bill from hell” is merely a charade.
Appearing on Vladimir Soloviev’s show, Stankevich argued that most of the promised sanctions will never materialize and are being floated solely to strengthen the GOP’s faltering position in the midterm elections. Korotchenko described Trump’s sanctions as “the bluff of a racketeer,” who is all sweetness and light during his face-to-face meetings with Putin. Lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky panned Trump as “the weakest president in the history of the United States” and the most incapable person on the planet.
The Kremlin’s power players are unanimous in not suggesting any change to Russia’s dangerous path on a collision course with the West. Maybe they aren’t taking the Trump administration and the Republican leadership seriously. Maybe they really do think the midterms will save them. Maybe they know something we don’t.