MOSCOW – After a day of denials by those around him, Donald Trump has admitted that he did indeed share classified intelligence about Islamic State with Russia. But the Kremlin is calling this “nonsense.”
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“This is not even an issue for us. It’s just more of the latest nonsense,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman to President Vladimir Putin. “We want nothing to do with this nonsense.”
On his Twitter account on Tuesday, Trump said he had disclosed the information because he wanted Russia “to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.” While not illegal, disclosure of such information – which the president received confidentially from a Middle Eastern ally – goes against intelligence etiquette, and could put the source at risk.
The information was apparently passed on to Russian officials last week in the Oval Office, at a gathering already tainted with scandal after a Russian photographer from the state-run TASS news agency was allowed in, while a member of the U.S. press was not.
The Russians seem to be enjoying themselves as Washington flip-flops between what is allegedly being said, and done, by the American president. “Guys, have you been reading American newspapers again?” Maria Zakharova, director of the Information and Press Department of Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, wrote jokingly on her Facebook page Tuesday, referring to U.S. media reports on Trump's meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s envoy to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
“You can put [U.S. newspapers] to various uses, but you shouldn’t read them. Lately it’s become not only harmful, but dangerous, too,” Zakharova continued. But then, in what seemed more like a sneer, she asked the rhetorical question, “How to live in this unstable world of information? With pleasure.”
Zakharova employed the Russian hashtag #MIDznal (#), meaning “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew” – a tongue-in-cheek jab at the West, to say that whatever happens in the White House, the Kremlin already knows about it. That hashtag (used regularly by the Twitter accounts of Russian embassies around the globe, as well as by some state-run Russian media) was also used in the midst of Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading a probe into Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
In disclosing the information about a potential Islamic State plot to the Russians, Trump could also have been simply careless; or, if previous behavior is anything to go by, boastful. And while Russians are denying outright that such intelligence was passed on, the issue now is not really if that happened, but how they are responding. The Russian elite is still smarting from the collapse of the Soviet Union decades ago, and what they view as the gloating by the West at its demise.
Every time a Russia-connected mishap befalls the current U.S. administration – and there are so many nowadays it’s becoming hard to keep track – the mood here is of triumphalism.
Just moments after Donald Trump fired the FBI's Comey, a parodic Twitter account appeared and announced that Chet Americanman had taken over the role. The accompanying image? Vladimir Putin with a crudely drawn mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. “Good Day To You Comrade Americans On This Wonderful American Day. I am an American, there is nothing to fear,” his first tweet read. While there is no proof linking the spoof to Moscow, the signs clearly point to Russia, as demonstrated by the use of the website of the Russian security services and the way the name "Chad" was transliterated.
Lavrov pretended to be unaware of Comey’s sacking when he was in Washington last week for the now-notorious meeting at the White House. In a press conference with his U.S. counterpart Rex Tillerson, Lavrov was asked about Comey. “Was he fired?” he shot back to the journalists. “You’re kidding.” He then walked away with an animated shake of his head.
And just like Comey’s firing, or Lavrov’s joke, or the blatant flaunting at the official level of Russian hacking – Trump’s shock announcement that he gave the Russians classified information is yet another episode, another Russian “win” in the Cold War reproduction we are watching unfold.
Since the story by The Washington Post broke that Trump disclosed the information to Russia, the only named official who has confirmed this has been, bizarrely, the president himself. It is true that both the U.S. and Russia want to cooperate in the area of counter-terrorism, an issue that has kept dialogue open between the former Cold War foes, despite worsening ties.
The Kremlin is genuinely worried by what Islamic State could do in Russia, which has a sizeable Muslim minority of 20 million, according to some estimates. Thousands of Russian speakers from that country and from former Soviet Central Asia are believed to be fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Though no group claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack on the St. Petersburg metro last month that killed at least 14 people, a man from Kyrgyzstan carried out the attack and is believed to have been inspired by Islamic State.
Moscow had high hopes that Trump would restore U.S.-Russian relations after eight anxious and tense years under the Obama administration, though those fizzled out when the U.S. fired deadly cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month. Now that dreams of a détente seem well and truly over, the White House blunders have become fair game for Russia.