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Russia Looks to Exploit White House ‘Turbulence,’ Analysts Say

Posted by hkarner - 1. März 2017

Date: 28-02-2017
Source: The New York Times

MOSCOW — The Kremlin, increasingly convinced that President Trump will not fundamentally change relations with Russia, is instead seeking to bolster its global influence by exploiting what it considers weakness in Washington, according to political advisers, diplomats, journalists and other analysts.

Russia has continued to test the United States on the military front, with fighter jets flying close to an American warship in the Black Sea this month and a Russian naval vessel steaming conspicuously in the Atlantic off the coast of Delaware.

They think he is unstable, that he can be manipulated, that he is authoritarian and a person without a team,” Alexei A. Venediktov, the editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, a liberal radio station, said of President Trump.

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, has long sought to crack the liberal Western order, both as a competitor and as a champion of an alternative, illiberal model. To that end, he did what he could to buttress the electoral chances of Mr. Trump, who seemed like a kindred spirit with his harsh denunciations of NATO and the European Union, his endorsement of the British withdrawal from the European Union and his repeated shrugs over Russia’s destabilizing Ukraine.

In this context, Mr. Trump’s election was an unexpected bonus, but the original giddiness has worn off, and Moscow has returned to its tried-and-true formula of creating turmoil and exploiting the resulting opportunities.

“They are all telling each other that this is great, he created this turbulence inside, as we wanted, and now he is focused on his domestic problems and we have more freedom to maneuver,” Mr. Venediktov said. “Let them deal with their own problems. There, not in Ukraine. There, not in the Middle East. There, not in NATO. This is the state of mind right now.”

Sergei A. Markov, a leading analyst friendly to the Kremlin, made much the same point. “Right now the Kremlin is looking for ways that Russia can use the chaos in Washington to pursue its own interests,” said Mr. Markov, a member of the Civic Chamber, a Kremlin advisory group. “The main hope is that the U.S. will be preoccupied with itself and will stop pressuring Russia.”

Any turbulence that Russia foments also gives the Kremlin leverage that it can try to trade in the global arena at a time when it does not have much that others want.

Mr. Venediktov compared the Russian position to an intrusive neighbor who promises to be helpful by avoiding noisy restoration activity at night even though it breaks the apartment building rules in the first place.

Analysts say the Kremlin is aware that the tactic of creating and exploiting disarray can become self-defeating, in that prolonged instability could allow threats like the extremist group Islamic State to flourish.

“It is important for Russia that America does its job in foreign policy,” said Alexey Chesnakov, a periodic Kremlin political adviser and the director of the Center for Current Politics, a trend analysis group in Moscow. “If there is nobody to do that job, it might not be good for us, either.”

The Middle East provides examples of both vectors, analysts say, a moment of chaos to exploit and concerns about achieving stability for the long-term future.

Moscow has begun courting Libya, where Mr. Putin seems to want to prove that the Obama administration and other Western powers made a mistake by working to force Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power in 2011. Russia invited various powerful figures to Moscow and sent the country’s lone aircraft carrier, the somewhat dilapidated Admiral Kuznetsov, on a port call to Libya on its way back from Syria last month. Khalifa Haftar, the military commander in eastern Libya, got a tour. The government invited veteran officials and analysts from around the Arab world this week to discuss the future of Libya and Yemen, among other topics.

Residents at a humanitarian food distribution site in Avdiivka, Ukraine, this month. Some analysts say American attention could be diverted from areas of conflict with Russia, like Ukraine, while President Trump focuses on domestic concerns.

Syria, on the other hand, underscores the limits to Russian power. In the two months since Russian-backed government forces took back the city of Aleppo, there has been little movement in forging peace.

Not least, Russia can ill afford the billions of dollars needed to rebuild the country. For that it needs Washington to help persuade its allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who all seek a political transition away from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Like much of the world, nobody in Moscow can figure out who makes Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, never mind what it will be. Since the inauguration, it has become clear that Mr. Trump’s rosy view of Mr. Putin is not shared by the president’s top foreign policy advisers, with the possible exception of Stephen K. Bannon, his chief White House strategist.

“We cannot understand how they will work in concert,” said Igor Yurgens, a Russian economist who is prominent in business and development.

The Kremlin has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Mr. Trump, analysts said, expecting the first meeting with Mr. Putin in Europe sometime this summer to set the course for relations.

Dmitry K. Kiselyov, the anchor of the main state propaganda program “News of the Week,” recently pronounced what seemed to be the new party line on the air. “Let’s not judge too harshly, things are still unsettled in the White House,” he said. “Still not a word from there. Only little words, and that doesn’t amount to a policy.”

Just how unsettled was underscored on Monday, when the White House announced plans to increase military spending by $54 billion, an amount just about equal to what Russia spends in total on its military annually.

While the appearance of such turmoil in the White House has probably been surprising, even gratifying, to the Kremlin, analysts say Russia’s government is worried about having too much of a good thing. “It would be better for us to have a predictable partner,” Mr. Markov said. “An unpredictable one is dangerous.”

The perception of weakness calls into question here in Moscow whether Mr. Trump can ever live up to the many statements he made during the campaign about forging closer ties with Mr. Putin and Russia. “The overwhelming view of the Kremlin is that Trump is not very strong,” said Valeriy Solovey, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “He might have sympathy toward Russia, but he is contained within the political establishment.”

Russia’s far right regularly predicts Mr. Trump’s assassination at the hands of the American establishment, a view occasionally echoed on state television.

Alexander Dugin, a nationalist Russian philosopher, called Mr. Trump’s inauguration the happiest day of his life because it signified the demise of the liberal international order. Mr. Dugin seemed most eager for Mr. Trump to get on with his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, although he worried about the consequences. “It can kill,” Mr. Dugin said in an interview. “It is not so easy to drain the swamp.”

Since the inauguration, however, enthusiasm for Mr. Trump in official Russia lurched from cool to uncool seemingly overnight. Dmitri S. Peskov, the presidential spokesman, denied that the new skepticism had been ordered from the top. The speed of the change was striking, however.

Russia’s political class marvels at how much time it now spends chewing over the minutiae of the American political system. Some attribute that to the fact that domestic politics are comatose, with Mr. Putin assured of winning another six-year term in 2018.

“Nobody is talking about the Putin election,” said Mr. Chesnakov, the political consultant. “We are discussing relations between Congress and Trump.”

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