20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, concluding that no criminal conspiracy occurred between the Trump Campaign and the Kremlin, the volume and intensity of the media coverage of this subject has visibly diminished. Some scarce attempts at post-mortem analysis of this topic, which had dominated public discourse, are taking place, with most media outlets defending their Russia reporting. While the deflation of the “Russia scare” might be a good thing, dismissing the actual problem with the Kremlin is not. Sooner or later President Trump will leave office, while President Putin is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And it is about time that Russia observers in the West wake up to a better, more nuanced understanding of Russia and its current regime.


In his report, special prosecutor Robert Mueller details all key actions of the Russian government pertinent to the alleged criminal conspiracy with the Trump Campaign and interference in the 2016 presidential election. Even in its redacted version, the report reveals the scope of the Kremlin's activity in the United States. Photo: Pete Souza (official White House photo).


The Russia Obsession

For more than two years, anxiety over the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. elections drove the political discourse in America (much less so in Russia), with two key approaches taking shape. The view of many Republicans held that allegations of a Trump-Putin collusion should be dismissed as a Democrat hoax in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss. Conversely, in the aftershock of Trump’s victory, many Democrats saw the Kremlin’s interference as proof of illegitimacy of his election. 

No doubt, many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum perceive Trump as an affront to their values and his election as a political aberration of sorts—not a fair representation of the nation’s attitudes, even though Trump’s approval ratings have remained consistent throughout his term, fluctuating around 40 percent. To many, the “collusion” allegations offered a comforting explanation: the problem is not so much at home as it is with a foreign foe. With its Cold War legacy and Putin’s “global villain” reputation, Russia fit the foe profile perfectly. And if Trump’s connections with Russia could be proven, the hope existed that he could be removed from office.

The speculations about Russia’s role in the U.S. elections generated an enormous amount of coverage and expertise ranging from sharp reporting to superficial “hot takes” to bizarre conspiracy theories. A substantial amount of that coverage revolved around Robert Mueller’s special investigation into a potential criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin and possible obstruction of justice, which, ultimately, provided little clarity. On the contrary, this particular media obsession left the average viewer more confused and anxious than ever.

To be fair, the emotional charge of the media coverage was amplified by Trump’s populist, divisive, authoritarian style of running the country. Trump has hijacked the American public discourse with his “Twitter-politics” and endless barrage of falsehoods, controversies, and scandals. His fascination with Vladimir Putin also looked suspicious.

When, after almost two years of speculation, the Mueller Report finally came out, those who resented Trump’s presidency found its conclusions disheartening, while for Trump supporters the report offered an opportunity to claim “full vindication.” For the most vocal members of both groups, however, it seemed that the truth played a less important role than getting the desired result, be it Trump’s impeachment or exoneration.

Since the Russia factor didn’t play out as expected by Trump’s critics, the media obsession with Russia almost immediately subsided in the aftermath of the report release, and the focus of the political feuds shifted to the issue of obstruction of justice. Ironically, despite the different expectations about the report, the relief that a foreign foe had not planted an agent inside the White House was palpable across the media and political landscape.


The Four Takeaways 

The 448-page Mueller Report is a goldmine of factual value for understanding the Putin regime. However, its coverage in the U.S. media continues to show the same political and cultural biases that pervaded the coverage of the Russia investigation from its inception, as well as that of Russia under Putin in general. These biases are rooted in many American journalists’, experts’, and policymakers’ broad misunderstanding of Russia as a country and the essence of the Putin regime as its current form of government, especially in the context of U.S.-Russia relations. This lack of knowledge of the country and the U.S. media obsession with the so-called “Russiagate” continuously baffled both the Kremlin’s supporters and its critics in Russia.

So how would a Russian read this report?

A simple overview points to four basic facts that immediately stick out. First, it shows that the Kremlin raised the stakes in its political game against the United States by bringing the fight home. This means that the Kremlin does not anticipate serious retaliation and interprets the U.S. leadership as weak and constrained by internal problems. This calculation is based on the multiple times when the West’s response to Russia’s foreign policy forays into neighboring territories was tepid—from the 2008 war with Georgia to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. (Some Russian experts argue that the West’s “tough” sanctions do not really hurt Russia, while actually serving the Kremlin’s anti-West propaganda.)

Second, the hacking of the DNC servers and the Clinton campaign’s emails was likely the purpose of the interference sanctioned by the Kremlin at the highest level, because it involved the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. The consequent leak of the stolen emails aligns with the Kremlin’s old strategy of kompromat war. The social media campaign propelled by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (who has been endlessly and misleadingly labeled by the media as “Putin’s cook”), seems more like a supplementing tack, whose goal was merely to divert attention. But since a significant part of the IRA-related section of the Mueller Report remains redacted, its true impact is still an open question.

Third, contrary to the often cartoonish coverage of the Russian government in the media, the Kremlin employs many smart, talented, competent Russians who were educated at the leading U.S. universities, such as Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, who holds degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Business School, and Arkady Dvorkovich, until recently Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, who holds a degree from Duke University. Many of these figures have high-level connections and deep insights into U.S. political life. How many U.S. officials, beyond the diplomatic corps, can claim similar experience?

Finally, the report offers just a glimpse into the global political backstage and the way deals are struck at the expense of the gullible masses. The problem is not only with the Kremlin’s political and business networks being transfused into the Western system and with the export of corrupt practices from Russia. It is also with the willful recipients—an array of opportunists in the US who gladly trade their country’s interest for personal gain: Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Michael Cohen. The list goes on.


The Kremlin’s Reading

What does the Mueller Report mean for the Kremlin?

On the surface, little has changed in the bilateral relationship, which still remains at one of its lowest points since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Kremlin might have even benefited from the “Russiagate” scandal. Vladimir Putin, for one, received a great amount of free publicity in the U.S. media that routinely portray him as a master of international politics (in 2013-2016, Forbes magazine named Putin the “most powerful person in the world” four years running). While officially denying allegations of election interference, the Kremlin clearly relished the idea of influencing the U.S. vote and enjoyed its newly empowered status.

And now, with the Russia coverage in the U.S. shifting back to the usual blend of the ridiculous and the absurd (overlooking what really matters), with no real retaliation coming from the Trump administration, the Kremlin is again in the clear to poke and probe the U.S. in pursuit of its geopolitical interests. With the next presidential elections in the U.S. only a year and a half away, where is the guarantee that Russia will not interfere again?

There exists a Russian proverb which can be literally translated as “Fear has large eyes,” meaning that fear makes you exaggerate the threat. If history is any indication, the Kremlin excels in the “politics of fear,” using it to keep the populace in check. The attitude of “fear means respect” is ingrained in the Russian public consciousness and serves as the regime’s modus operandi. It is even declared, only half-jokingly, as a foreign policy principle.

The Russia obsession in the U.S. provided the Kremlin with valuable insights on the current state of affairs in the country—its deep political polarization, ceaseless public outrage, media sensationalism, etc. The Kremlin surely took notice of how quickly anxiety and fear can drive online discussions in social media to the level of the absurd, and how these discussions can further escalate to actual violence.

Hence, the Kremlin will likely continue its game of fear-mongering and “whataboutism” with the West in the public domain, while seeking to engage and strike deals with interested parties behind closed doors. It is unlikely to stop unless forced to. Acknowledging what the real problem with the Putin regime is would be the first step for the U.S. toward solving it.