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After Mueller Report: Moscow Uncertain It Can Repair Relations with Washington

FINLAND -- Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump (2L) attend a meeting in Helsinki, July 16, 2018

The release of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report last week did not stir a flurry of comments by Russian officials and the Russian media. Moscow’s reaction has been rather muted and focused on dismissing the investigation, diminishing the report’s findings and refuting Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The message from the Kremlin has been clear: this chapter is over and we want to move on.

Moving on means fixing relations with Washington, but even high-ranking Russian officials appear doubtful it will be that easy. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov clearly stated that the report would negatively affect the relationship between Moscow and Washington: “From the very beginning of this report, we said that whatever the investigators were doing, they would not find any interference, and President Putin, in particular, spoke about this...We regret that documents of this sort directly impact the development of Russian-U.S. relations that are not at their best as it is.”

U.S. -- Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington.
U.S. -- Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington.

Mueller’s conclusion is clear for the Kremlin spokesman to see – that Moscow indeed interfered in the 2016 election campaign through several channels: the special counsel included a trove of evidentiary material in his report.

The special counsel’s indictments of numerous Russian nationals have been in the public record since 2018 for Peskov to note – indictments that implicate Russian nationals in the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But Moscow now is hiding behind Mueller’s conclusion that the Trump campaign did not engage in a conspiracy with the Russian government to undermine the election. The Kremlin is now spinning “no collusion” as “no Russian involvement.”

The Russian foreign ministry’s director for North America, Georgij Borisenko, said that the report “actually confirms the absence of any argument that Russia allegedly interfered in the American elections. There is not a single proof. The authors of the report actually signed that they have no such evidence," he told RIA Novosti.

By playing down the report’s findings and dismissing the investigation as “much ado about nothing” that “lasted not a month and not a year and cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars,” Moscow is now trying to appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration to repair the bilateral relationship.

Immediately after the release of the Mueller report, the Russian embassy in Washington published its own rebuttal titled “The Russiagate Hysteria: A Case of Severe Russophobia.” It is a compilation of Russian and U.S. official statements related to the special counsel’s investigation, as well as numerous news articles covering Russian meddling in the 2016 election campaign.

The document is structured under subtitles referring to:

  • “examples of hysteria;”
  • “groundless accusations;”
  • “Russophobia;”
  • “attacks on Russian diplomats;”
  • “demonization of the [Russian] Embassy;”
  • "spy mania” and “persecution of the Russian press.”

In the brief conclusions, the Russian embassy declares that the “Russian meddling” was just fake news.

​"Almost three years have passed from the first fake news that appeared in American media on the subject of ‘Russian meddling’ and ‘collusion,’ which were first launched to discredit Donald Trump candidacy and then to sabotage his agenda, including efforts to stabilize Russian-U.S. relations,” the report says. It ends with an appeal to “our American partners to finally disavow these allegations and join efforts to repair the damage to bilateral relations, for the sake of our peoples and global security.”

Again, improving bilateral relations appear to be Russian officials’ main goal, as the U.S. Special Counsel’s report determined that “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

The head of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, also expressed concern about bilateral relations and, at the same time, doubt that there was “real and true evidence of all of these absurd accusations.” He said that “Russophobia and fakes have turned into a widespread tool both in the domestic political struggle in Washington and for promoting United States’ interests abroad.”

With relations between the U.S. and Russia still at a low point, it would appear Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election have backfired, a result of a miscalculation by the Kremlin. The Russian authorities have often claimed that the notion of “collusion” was only invented to prevent President Trump from improving relations with Moscow.

But the report, although redacted, provided information previously unknown in Russia, according to Alexander Ryklin, editor-in-chief of the Daily Journal in Moscow. One example was the testimony of Petr Aven, the head of Alfa-Bank and one of the richest people in Russia, which, Ryklin told VOA’s Russian service, makes it “absolutely clear that he was fulfilling Putin’s direct instructions to establish contacts with the Trump team. Aven even complained that he had no opportunity to refuse because it had unpleasant consequences.”

In fact, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had to answer reporters’ questions about the involvement of Russian businessmen with the Trump campaign in an effort to protect their businesses from potential U.S. sanctions. Peskov admitted that Russian businessmen Aven, Sergei Gorkov and Kirill Dmitriev, who are mentioned in the Mueller report, briefed President Putin on key aspects of their contacts with the United States, although he tried to downplay those contacts as regular business activities.

RUSSIA -- A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. embassy building in Moscow, July 31, 2017
RUSSIA -- A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. embassy building in Moscow, July 31, 2017

Russian commentators said that the publication of the U.S. Special Counsel’s report presented enormous and serious evidence of Russian involvement in the U.S. elections that Moscow cannot ignore. “While Congress was initially harsh on Moscow for the election interference, the White House was trying to enter into some kind of dialogue. Now, after the publication of the document, it will be very difficult to do so,” said Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of the Russian internet publication Insider.

The chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, was hopeful that bilateral relations could improve back in March, when only a brief summary of Mueller’s report became public. “There’s a chance to re-set much in our relations, but whether Trump will take the risk—that’s the question,” he said while urging the U.S. president to revisit his decision to pull out of treaties limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia.

But the tone from Russian experts changed after the redacted Mueller report exposed the details of Moscow’s election interference operation.

“I don’t see how President Donald Trump can exercise any more flexibility on Russia under the current circumstances,” said Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “For example, I cannot see how we can put together another Putin-Trump summit without Trump having many, many problems at home,” Kortunov commented on CNN.