Rus­sians take lit­tle no­tice of U.S. elec­tion ac­cu­sa­tions

State me­dia help plant seeds of doubt

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | Ex­plo­sive charges that Moscow in­ter­vened in the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to help Don­ald Trump win the White House may be caus­ing up­heaval in the United States, but in Rus­sia they have had about as much im­pact as a snowflake strik­ing the Krem­lin.

Top of­fi­cials dis­miss the charges, the state-con­trolled me­dia has given the story lit­tle play, and or­di­nary Rus­sians are skep­ti­cal of both Wash­ing­ton’s claims and of their own lead­ers’ abil­ity to carry out such an in­tel­li­gence coup.

On so­cial me­dia and in ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tions, the story of the Krem­lin’s sus­pected in­tel­li­gence coup is a near non­event. In a snap poll by The Wash­ing­ton Times, few Rus­sians knew much, if any­thing, about the CIA’s claim that Rus­sian hack­ers stole and pub­lished emails from the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee specif­i­cally to put the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee into the White House.

Even some Rus­sians are mys­ti­fied by the story’s low-key re­cep­tion.

“Why is there such lit­tle in­ter­est in the CIA’s un­prece­dented in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sia’s as­sis­tance for Trump at the elec­tions?” Maria Sne­go­v­aya, a colum­nist for Rus­sia’s Ve­do­mosti news­pa­per, wrote on so­cial me­dia.

Even ac­cu­sa­tions by Hil­lary Clin­ton, the de­feated Demo­cratic Party nom­i­nee, that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or­dered the cy­ber­at­tack as part of a “per­sonal beef” against her have failed to pro­voke dis­cus­sion. Mrs. Clin­ton said the Krem­lin strong­man was en­raged when she raised con­cerns about Rus­sia’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2011. The elec­tions sparked mass protests in Moscow and briefly threat­ened Mr. Putin’s long po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts say the lack of in­ter­est in the claims is largely a prod­uct of the way they have been cov­ered by state tele­vi­sion, the main source of news for most Rus­sians. State me­dia have called the CIA’s con­clu­sions “hys­ter­i­cal” and “anti-Rus­sian para­noia.” Other state me­dia com­men­ta­tors have called them part of an in­ter­nal strug­gle for in­flu­ence among U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

“For most Rus­sians, in­ter­est in events in the United States is gen­er­ated by na­tional tele­vi­sion,” said Maria Lip­man, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Moscow-based jour­nal Coun­ter­point. “Tele­vi­sion hasn’t fo­cused too much on the hack­ing story other than to say that this is just another part of a pat­tern of the United States mak­ing wild al­le­ga­tions against Rus­sia and blam­ing it for ev­ery­thing. In this case, most peo­ple think, ‘Well, what is there to say here?’”

Pro-Putin fig­ures have also re­mained largely silent, pass­ing up a seem­ingly golden op­por­tu­nity to crow about Rus­sia’s abil­ity to shape global events. But there is a clear sense that the untested Mr. Trump can hardly be worse than the fa­mil­iar Mrs. Clin­ton when it comes to chang­ing the dy­namic of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. More than two-thirds of re­spon­dents to an on­line poll by the web­site Rus­sia Be­hind The Head­lines ( pre­dicted that re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton would “rad­i­cally” or “slightly” im­prove un­der Pres­i­dent Trump.

Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev said last week in a na­tion­ally tele­vised year-end re­view with lo­cal jour­nal­ists that the lack of ties be­tween the tra­di­tional Wash­ing­ton for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment and Mr. Trump and his emerg­ing team could be a pos­i­tive sign.

“Amer­i­cans now have as their leader a per­son who has not spent a sin­gle day in pol­i­tics,” he said. “The main thing is that these peo­ple are de­void of in­born an­tiRus­sian stereotypes. These peo­ple are start­ing ev­ery­thing from scratch, which is not a bad thing.”

Tiller­son’s ties

That trend con­tin­ued even af­ter Mr. Trump’s nom­i­na­tion of Rex Tiller­son for sec­re­tary of state on Dec. 13. Mr. Tiller­son, chair­man and CEO of Exxon Mo­bil, has met Mr. Putin on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions dur­ing al­most two decades of do­ing busi­ness in Rus­sia. He was awarded the Or­der of Friend­ship by the Rus­sian leader in 2013.

Mr. Tiller­son also has warm re­la­tions with Igor Sechin, a hard-line of­fi­cial who is be­lieved to have been part of a small group of Krem­lin in­sid­ers who plot­ted Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014. The head of the state-owned oil gi­ant, Ros­neft, Mr. Sechin has said he would like to “ride the roads in the United States on mo­tor­cy­cles” with Mr. Tiller­son. The Texan oil­man has called Mr. Sechin “my friend.”

The of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment re­ac­tion to Mr. Tiller­son’s se­lec­tion was friendly but low-key. Krem­lin for­eign pol­icy aide Yuri Ushakov told the Agence France-Presse news ser­vice that Mr. Putin and other top Rus­sian of­fi­cials en­joyed “good, busi­nesslike re­la­tions” with the Exxon Mo­bil chief, who is “known to ev­ery­one” in the top ranks of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

But asked if Mr. Trump’s choice for sec­re­tary of state could im­prove bi­lat­eral ties, Mr. Ushakov was more non­com­mit­tal.

“We want to get out of the cri­sis state [of our re­la­tions], which does not sat­isfy nei­ther the Rus­sian nor the Amer­i­can side,” he said.

For many Rus­sians, there is deep skep­ti­cism about the U.S. in­tel­li­gence claims, re­flect­ing years of ris­ing pro­pa­ganda claims on both sides of the re­la­tion­ship.

“Peo­ple are con­vinced that you can’t be­lieve any­thing from Wash­ing­ton,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Krem­lin po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. “It’s just lies upon lies. Ev­ery­one un­der­stands this.”

Rus­sian of­fi­cials have also been dis­mis­sive.

“It’s time to ei­ther stop talk­ing about [these claims] or present some ev­i­dence. Oth­er­wise, it looks un­seemly,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Krem­lin spokesman. Mr. Peskov also called the ac­cu­sa­tions “amus­ing non­sense.”

Or­di­nary Rus­sians also voiced skep­ti­cism that their coun­try had the re­sources to carry out such an ef­fec­tive op­er­a­tion.

“I’m not con­vinced our hack­ers are so pow­er­ful as to in­flu­ence the out­come of the re­sult of the U.S. elec­tion,” said Alexei Blokhin, a com­puter pro­gram­mer in Moscow.

There is also one other pos­si­bil­ity why Rus­sians aren’t fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments.

“The story has also be­come truly con­fus­ing, even for those Rus­sians who fol­low in­ter­na­tional news and read in English,” said Ms. Lip­man, the po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. “Some­times, it is re­ally hard to un­der­stand ex­actly what’s hap­pen­ing.”


Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has met with Exxon Mo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. An of­fi­cial at the Krem­lin said Mr. Tiller­son, nom­i­nated to be sec­re­tary of state, is “known to ev­ery­one” in the top ranks of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

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