Is Putin winning? Or just laughing?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin smEveryone who watches the news knows that this week (which isn’t even over yet) has been the Worst Week out of many worst weeks for President Trump. Blood is in the water. White House staff is panicked. The #TrumpRussia investigation has entered a new phase with the appointment of a Special Counsel. The cover of Time magazine shows the White House turning into St. Basil’s Cathedral. Some Democrats are even looking past Trump’s resignation or impeachment, which they believe is inevitable, and strategizing on how to take out Mike Pence.

At the same time, another narrative is taking shape: the Russians are rubbing their hands in glee. Putin is laughing at America.

Even Trump himself has conjured the sinister image of Russian laughter in a tweet.

And the corollary to the “Russians are laughing” story is: they’re laughing because they’re winning. Putin’s investment in Trump is paying off.

The Russians are laughing. But why?

It’s abundantly clear that the Kremlin line of the past couple weeks is that the Russian leadership finds all of this to be absurd: the Western media is on a witch-hunt and Russia is being used as a scarecrow in America’s domestic political games, and Russians can only look on and laugh. The Russian message: a tragicomedy is playing out before our eyes, and the US Democratic political establishment sees whipping up anti-Russia hysteria as being more important than tackling the important issues of the international agenda.

I don’t think that the latest Kremlin narrative is coming from a place of winning. I think it’s coming from a place of the Kremlin having few other options of what to say, the conundrum of Trump’s continued popularity with the Russian people, and a lack of clarity on what comes next.

You have to remember that Putin’s ruling style is, first and foremost, populist. He watches his approval ratings closely, and he keeps those ratings high through a combination of careful messaging and persuasion in the state-dominated Russian media landscape, as well as trying to figure out what people want to see and hear and giving it to them, and presenting Putin as a formidable player on the world stage. Putin, after all, will be up for re-election in 2018, and while, sure, the mechanisms are there to deliver Putin a re-election victory through election manipulation, the Kremlin has an extremely strong preference for Putin to win convincingly and “fairly,” in the sense that he wins by a large margin in a vote with high turnout and little-to-no fraud.

First of all, Trump getting elected in the first place presented a challenge for the Kremlin in terms of domestic opinion. They had built up Trump as a folk hero, and even tried to show that he represents a suppressed silent majority of Americans who are sympathetic to Russia and Putin. I don’t think anyone who follows Russian politics closely can seriously believe that the Kremlin would’ve given Trump such positive coverage if they expected him to win. The narrative was all set up and ready to go as soon as Trump lost: the corrupt US establishment ensured the victory of anti-Russian zealot Hillary Clinton, and the far-reaching tendrils of the American intelligence agencies and military-industrial complex achieved their goal of keeping Russia and America from being friends.

Ordinary Russians didn’t perceive Trump’s victory as a failure of US democracy, not by a long shot. They saw it as proof that the US electoral system counts votes honestly, in sharp contrast to their lack of confidence in the veracity of Russian vote tallying. So when Trump won, the Kremlin was faced with the conundrum of facing a US president whom they themselves had built up as an underdog hero.

And Trump’s refusal, so far, to lash out against Putin or seriously backtrack his campaign promise to try to make a grand bargain with Russia on pressing matters of international security, has meant that Trump maintains his image (in Russia, at least) as a courageous David who’s willing to take on the Goliath of the American Deep State. The political backlash Trump’s experienced since hosting Russian foreign minister Lavrov and embattled Russian ambassador to the US Kislyak is not perceived by ordinary Russians as being funny at all; it’s viewed as a brave move by a man who’s willing to take risks to fulfill his promises.

So the official Russian laughter at the situation in the US isn’t a belly laugh; it’s a nervous giggle. The Russian leadership realizes that in the real world, Bible stories rarely come true. Goliath will probably smite David, and in light of the anti-Russian sentiment being stoked in the US, either Congress will push through legislation (over Trump’s veto, if necessary) to punish Russia further or Trump will be forced out of office, and the path of least resistance for the next president will be hawkishness against Russia, maybe even extreme hawkishness.

Trump staying in office is troublesome for Russia: he probably can’t achieve any real progress in improving US-Russian relations, but the Russian people are giving him credit for trying. That’s not a comfortable situation for a populist Russian president, and that’s why laughter is so far the best the Kremlin can come up with as an answer.

This will sound extremely counterintuitive for most Democrats, but probably the best thing that Putin can hope for is that Trump is removed from office, or even better, if he ends up in jail. That will be a huge PR coup for the Kremlin. Putin will portray Trump as a political prisoner, an American dissident. In that case, the narrative writes itself.

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