By Sabra Ayres / Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW — As the impeachment inquiry into President Trump heads into its third week, his outbursts have intensified. He’s accused members of Congress of treason. In press conferences, he’s interrupted world leaders to engage in heated exchanges with journalists.
And of course, there are the tweets. On Monday he bragged about his “great and unmatched wisdom.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be enjoying the show.
In Moscow last week, Putin responded with mockery when a reporter from MSNBC asked if the Kremlin planned to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections.
“I’ll tell you a secret…” he whispered into the microphone as he sat on the stage at an energy conference. “Yes, we will definitely intervene. But don’t tell anyone.”
The audience roared with laughter. Putin sat back in his chair and smirked.
He has good reason to relax.
Russia has been a geopolitical pariah since it annexed Crimea in 2014 — and its international standing sank more after it was found to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Now the spotlight is now on Russia’s nemesis Ukraine, whose newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to kowtow to Trump in a phone call at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
In the July 25 call, Zelenskiy praised U.S. assistance for political and economic reforms, as well as funding its military in the fight against Russia-backed separatist militias.
He also criticized the amount of aid his country had received from the European Union and said that he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron they “are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine.”
For European leaders still getting to know the new Ukrainian president, the comments could be construed as ungrateful. Since 2014, Ukraine has received nearly $16.5 billion in assistance from the EU and $3.2 billion from the United States.
European leaders have continued to enforce sanctions against Russian. If they were to now reconsider their relationship with Ukraine, it would be a win for Putin.
“The scandal surrounding Trump’s negotiations with Zelenskiy is diverting attention from Russia, and that is beneficial for Moscow,” said Evgeny Minchenko, a political consultant in Moscow.
He said Americans have seen Russia as the villain for years, but now “the main villains are Ukrainians.”
Revelations about Trump’s effort to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats had another benefit for Russia: They spurred the resignation of Kurt Volker from his position as special envoy to Ukraine.
“Volker was always a difficult negotiator for Russia,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of R. Politik, a political analysis firm based in Paris.
She said that Russia saw Volker as always taking Ukraine’s side and “therefore always resistant to every Russian idea.”
Still, any benefits Putin gets from the biggest political scandal to hit Washington since Watergate could be short-lived.
“Political battles in the U.S. will not bring benefits to either Russia or the rest of the world,” said Yuri Rogulev, a professor at Moscow State University and the director of its Franklin Roosevelt Foundation for the Study of the United States.
“It will prevent confidence-building between the two countries, and in Russia and the United States trust is already very low,” he said.
Improving bilateral relations with the U.S. is important to the Kremlin. Over the last three years, diplomats from both countries have been expelled in a tit-for-tat battle between Washington and Moscow.
Despite the Kremlin’s insistence that Western sanctions have not hurt the country, Russia’s economic growth has been less than 2% a year. Putin’s approval ratings have decreased as inflation has risen and real incomes have declined.
The impeachment scandal is “the weakening of Trump,” and that does not benefit Putin, Stanovaya said.
For Putin, Trump is a barrier between Russia and what the Kremlin sees as anti-Russia elites in American politics, she said.
“Putin would like to deal with a Trump who has a strong position with these American political elites,” she said. “It’s like a kind of protection against all the anti-Russian sentiments.”