MOSCOW – Who, me?
That was Moscow’s reaction on Thursday after the explosive testimony from former FBI Director James Comey, who accused President Donald Trump of firing him to undermine the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Russian government officials and state-run programming knocked the U.S. congressional hearing as being over-hyped and a witch hunt out to get Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were other issues that held “far greater interest” than the Comey testimony, such as the conflict in Syria, where Russia has been militarily propping up Bashar Assad’s regime for some two years. He then flipped the situation around, saying that hackers from America – not necessarily the secret services – had tried to attack President Vladimir Putin’s website, without giving more details. The foreign ministry, whose statements are often brash and at times sarcastic, stayed quiet on the issue; instead, it focused on the visit to Moscow by the UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
On Russia’s major state-run broadcasters, which often serve as government mouthpieces, Russia was presented as an innocent victim caught up in chaos far from home. “We’re the next Monica Lewinsky,” popular TV host Artem Sheinin said on Channel One as Comey’s hearing was coming to a close. Just as Lewinsky was lured into having an affair with President Bill Clinton, and therefore damaging his reputation, Russian meddling in Trump’s victory is coming under unfair scrutiny, Sheinin argued. “The American elite don’t like Trump, so we’ve become their reason to try to get rid of him.” Russian media raised the question of impeachment, a borrowed word pronounced as “eempeechmyent” that is rapidly growing in popularity. Critics of Trump argue that an obstruction of justice, such as stopping the FBI probe, could lead to impeachment, though the Republican-ruled Senate has shown little interest in it so far.
While Russia denies accusations of interference in the U.S. election process, via hacking the Democratic Party’s emails or colluding with Trump’s campaign, Moscow made no secret of its preference for Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. While the long-anticipated reset of ties between the former Cold War foes is yet to materialize – they have publicly clashed on Syria, Afghanistan and Iran – Russia still has hopes that Trump will lift sanctions placed on Russia. Those were slapped on for Moscow’s involvement in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Clinton represented a continuation of what Russians saw as a democratizing crusade under President Barack Obama, when relations between Washington and Moscow sank to their lowest since the end of the Cold War.
Though Trump and Putin are yet to meet – they are expected to at the G-20 Summit being held next month in Germany – and while the U.S.-Russian relationship continues on a rollercoaster journey, Russia does not want to see Trump discredited, especially by the Democrats.
“Trump’s enemies are seeking blood,” said Alexey Pushkov, who heads the international affairs committee in Russian parliament. “It’s reminiscent of that old American illness, McCarthyism,” he wrote on Twitter during the Comey hearing. On Sheinin’s Channel One show, political scientist Alexander Sytin argued that trust between Moscow and Washington had become so eroded that it didn’t even matter what Americans believe “as long as our president Vladimir Putin is in office,” implying that the U.S. had no respect for Russia.
Across the United States on Thursday, people gathered in bars and restaurants to watch Comey’s two hours of testimony, in the most hotly anticipated U.S. congressional hearing for years. But there were no such gatherings in Moscow, a city that celebrated Trump’s win with parties and discounts at American-style eateries.
Instead, Comey’s testimony – which did not reveal anything major about Trump’s links to Russia, an issue that has hampered his first few months as president – was downplayed as hype. A D.C.-based journalist from the state-run, English language RT network, Alexey Yaroshevsky, tweeted a cartoon of a man “literally clutching at straws”, and compared it to the mass media’s obsession with the Comey hearing. The Russian embassy in D.C., an avid tweeter, is yet to comment on Comey. Bizarrely, it sent out a tweet during the Comey hearing celebrating the Red Army’s successful role in D-Day in World War Two, whose anniversary was two days before. Russian state media seized on Comey’s comments that a New York Times story in February linking Trump and Russia was “not true”.
They appeared to be taking a leaf out of Putin’s book, who told NBC’s Megyn Kelly on Sunday, “You created a sensation out of nothing. Your lives must be boring” when she asked about the reported proposal by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to set up a secure and secret channel between Trump and the Kremlin.
American mass media, especially CNN, is often criticized by Russia’s foreign ministry for fuelling Russophobia and lies about Russia. Those comments come under a broader claim of victimization. Last month, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russian correspondents felt like “Jews in 1933” after it emerged that a photographer from the state-run news agency TASS, and not an American journalist, was allowed into the Oval Office with Trump and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Going forward, Russia seems to be holding its breath for Putin and Trump’s planned meeting in Hamburg in a few weeks’ time. While Russia wants Trump on its side, it also needs to delicately navigate through the various Russia-connected scandals engulfing the White House. Running to Trump’s defence may look like proof of collusion; staying too far away may lose them a partner, and therefore a chance at having sanctions lifted.
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