As impeachment proceedings loom over President Donald Trump, some observers have speculated that Russia, actively enjoying sowing chaos in the United States, is delighted by the dysfunction tearing apart the U.S. government. Nineteen Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a joint letter to the Wall Street Journal that was published on the paper’s op-ed page last month with the headline, “Impeachment Is What Vladimir Putin Wants.” The GOP members of Congress wrote, “His goal, now and before the 2016 election, has been to pit Americans against one another and erode confidence in our democratic process.”
That might be true up to a point. But the impeachment investigation might be a bit too chaotic, even for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There are many ways in which the Ukraine affair is terrifying the Kremlin, because it threatens to unwind what little progress Russia has made in recent years and undercuts its wider goals. Putin’s long-term goal is pretty clear: He wants the United States to conclude a “big deal” that would revise the outcome of the Cold War and limit the strategic threat that he believes the West poses to Russia through its military expansion, double standards in foreign affairs and liberal values.
Putin himself repeated many times that it’s hard to deal with a United States that is torn apart by internal fighting. “As regards the developments in the United States—how can we cooperate with them when they are so engaged in their domestic political affairs?” Putin said earlier this month. “Obviously, this is always the case during an election campaign, and the United States is no exception. But this domestic political race has got a little over the top.”
This is not the scandal the Kremlin wants for three reasons. First, the Russians were interested in an improvement in Russia-U.S. relations during the Trump presidency. Just after Trump’s election Moscow began preparing proposals aimed at finding ground for the kind of “big deal” the new American president had talked about during his campaign.
But the initial euphoria has faded. U.S.-Russia relations turned out to be worse than ever, following revelations of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Even so, Trump remains the one political actor the Kremlin has been relying on to revive bilateral relations.
This spring, Moscow began to hope that tensions between Russia and other countries, including the United States, were relaxing for the first time since Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. French President Emmanuel Macron called on the West to embrace Russia without geopolitical conditions, which was interpreted by Russia as the start of a possible détente with the West.
Even relations between Russia and Ukraine were looking up. Moscow and Kiev carried out a historic exchange of prisoners in September. Some hoped that the exchange would open the door to progress on the Minsk agreements, the stalled framework deal of 2014-15 to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Implementation of those agreements is a prerequisite for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions, which have hurt the Russian economy.
And now—poof. A new cycle of chaos and madness has begun, which may lead to more negative repercussions for Russia. A new wave of anti-Russian sentiment is being unleashed in U.S. politics that could trigger new congressional sanctions. No less an authoritative figure than Nancy Pelosi has suggested that Russia was directly involved in the Trump-Ukraine mess. The call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is often interpreted as an extension of Russia’s 2016 interference. All the discussions about Ukraine in the United States almost always lead to Russia and become a reason to talk about Ukraine as its victim in need of protection. Altogether, any mention of Ukraine in the current anti-Russia news media further damages Russia’s international image, which, of course, is already considerably underwater.
The second reason for the Kremlin’s worry is that the Ukraine scandal undermines Trump’s capacity to conduct his own Russia policy, in opposition to the rest of the U.S. political establishment. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Trump functions, in Putin’s eyes, as a buffer between Russia and the traditional U.S. national security establishment, which the Kremlin sees as implacably hostile. Trump has thrown overboard all of the established U.S. foreign policy approaches to Russia. He doesn’t preach and he doesn’t stand in Russia’s way. Trump is a businessman, not an ideological warrior, and he is not impeded by annoying democratic values.
Russia is ready to pay a price to maintain the Trump buffer, including enduring further rounds of Western economic sanctions. The rest of the U.S. political class, both Democratic and Republican, represents a long-term strategic threat to Russia and its geopolitical interests. Thus, regardless of whatever headaches Trump may create for the Kremlin, he will always seem like the lesser evil. Not surprisingly, whatever happens to Trump, Putin publicly supports him. But now, there is more scrutiny than ever on Trump’s foreign policy conduct, and he will likely not be able to operate in secret.
The third and final reason for the Kremlin to be worried comes from the growing fear that a private presidential conversation with Trump could be published without Russia’s permission. After the release of a transcript of the July 25 conversation between Trump and Zelensky, the Kremlin said that Washington would need Russian consent before publishing any transcripts of conversations between Putin and Trump.
Putin is probably not worried the transcripts can hurt his standings at home—in domestic affairs he remains politically untouchable. Rather, there are two other problems Putin is likely concerned about if such a transcript is published. First, Putin surely sees the transcript as a potential tool that could be used by Trump’s rivals to undermine and weaken Trump, which is not good for Moscow. We know from news accounts that Trump has said some very embarrassing things to Russian officials, such as dismissing the significance of Russian interference in the 2016 election and endorsing the idea of a joint U.S.-Russian cyber unit to somehow prevent this from ever happening again. Second, the risk itself that the talk can be published is psychologically uncomfortable for the Russian president, as he likes to have intimate heart-to-heart conversations with his counterparts—something that apparently worked during the Trump-Putin 2017 Helsinki summit. This is his style of dealing with his counterparts—to try to find some special chemistry with other world leaders. It’s harder to establish that kind of rapport while thinking that all you say might go public tomorrow.
It’s possible that Putin wants to sow chaos in the United States. He certainly enjoyed Trump’s presidential campaign victory and its corrosive effect on American political life. But the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment investigation might be moving a bit too fast, even for the chaos mastermind. For Putin, it would have been better if the Ukraine scandal had never happened. Trump is better than a traditional American president, who would continue the traditional policy of treating Russia as a Cold war loser.