Evan Vuchi / AP
Earlier this month, President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, met with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev. The two men met in neutral Switzerland as Patrushev, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is under sanctions from the United States and the European Union.
“One of the reasons I went to meet with General Patrushev was to tell him that there would be absolutely no tolerance for any interference in our election day,” O’Brien said after the meeting. He said he “insists that Russia not commit to such things. The Russians have committed to do so.”
Despite Patrushev’s commitment and apparent acceptance by O’Brien, US intelligence agencies say Russia is still trying to intervene.
Last month, FBI Director Christopher Rai testified before Congress that Russia was committed to “malignant foreign influence” – including the use of social media and propaganda – mainly after Trump’s Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP
The Kremlin has categorically denied interfering in any US election, past or present. The Kremlin also acknowledges that the issue has become an obstacle to improving bilateral relations, even slightly.
Just over a week after Wray’s testimony, Putin offered the United States an agreement that would ban interference in the other country’s electoral processes. The initiative echoes Putin’s proposal to set up a joint cybersecurity unit, which he sailed during his 2018 summit with Trump in Finland – and is not going anywhere.
The Kremlin adheres to the line that the United States is actually trying to interfere in Russian politics. Three years ago, the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, formed a temporary commission for foreign intervention in Russia.
“It’s called ‘temporary’ because we hope the time will come when you won’t interfere with us,” Andrei Klimov, the commission’s chairman, told NPR. “If we make the commission permanent, it will mean that you will intervene constantly. We still want to believe in the good.”
Klimov says his commission has amassed thousands of pages of documentation of US influence efforts. He claims that US foundations affiliated with the US government are working with Russian political activists and that cyberattacks against Russia of US origin are many times more in the other direction.
The term “Russian intervention” is a scam, he says, invented during the Obama administration to try to help Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016.
In Moscow, the challenge left over from the last US presidential election is real. Everything had to be so different when Donald Trump unexpectedly took over the presidency from Barack Obama, promising to improve relations with Russia. Instead, accusations of Russian abuse by Trump’s own intelligence officials continued – and bipartisan support in Congress to tighten sanctions.
Now that there are about three months left in Trump’s term, relations between the United States and Russia are even more strained than when he took office. The last major arms control treaty between the United States and Russia will expire in February, and negotiations continue to extend it.
In the leading weekly show on Russian state television, a barometer of the Kremlin’s mood, host Dmitry Kiselyov used the first presidential debate to criticize America as a whole.
Anyone who has watched the controversial debate has been left with a “feeling of disgust,” Kiselyov said.
“For decades, America has imposed its way of life on the world as a universal model,” he said. “And now everything has changed so fast.”
Trump, once celebrated as a friend of Russia, is no longer so favorably received. According to a poll published in September, only 23% of Russians have a positive view of Trump, while 43% have a negative one. And 55% of respondents say they hear about Biden for the first time.
The Kremlin, of course, knows Biden very well.
“I think the very fact that Biden was Obama’s vice president no longer makes him a friendly figure in Russia,” said Moscow-based political analyst Masha Lipman. “Obama looked down on Russia. In some of his statements, he certainly sounded disrespectful. That provoked this feeling of insult from Russia.”
Even when the Obama administration undertook a “reset” in relations with the Kremlin, Biden made contemptuous remarks about Russia’s role as a global power, saying in 2009 that it had a “drying economy” and “sticking to something in the past that was not sustainable. “
During a visit to Moscow in 2011, Biden said it would be bad for Russia if Putin ran for a third term – the Russian president is already in his fourth term and expects two more.
Biden later said that during the same visit, he told Putin, “I look you in the eye and I don’t think you have a soul,” to which Putin smiled in Biden’s show and replied, “We understand. “
Three years later, when Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory, Biden became Obama’s leading figure in Ukraine.
Still, Putin knows Biden could become the next American president. Asked by a Russian TV reporter last week about his preferences, Putin tried to be diplomatic.
“We will work with every future president of the United States, with the man who will have the trust of the American people,” he said.
“We know that President Trump has spoken out many times in support of the development of Russian-American relations. We certainly appreciate that very much,” he said. He accused a “bipartisan consensus on the need to contain Russia” of limiting Trump’s room for maneuver.
At the same time, Putin criticized the Trump administration for signing new sanctions and withdrawing from the Medium-Range Nuclear Force Treaty last year.
As for Biden, Putin said the Democratic candidate was using “sharp anti-Russian rhetoric” but that the Kremlin was encouraged by Biden’s interest in maintaining the new START arms control treaty – originally negotiated by the Obama administration – which expires in February.
Lipman warns that the prospects for better relations are bleak, no matter who wins. If Biden becomes president, he could consolidate European allies against Moscow, she said, while if Trump is re-elected, his political opponents could pursue an even tougher policy toward Russia.
The only thing that helps the Kremlin, Lipman says, is more polarization and turmoil in the United States.
“The unrest means the United States is weakened,” she said. “The Kremlin can actually benefit from this, not improve relations. This is the only thing Russia can hope for.”