Report: Russia starting to doubt whether it'll have better relations with President Trump

Assuming this is true (Bloomberg claims four different Russian sources), it makes it hard to believe that Russia has any damaging “kompromat” on Trump. If they did, there’d be no reason to fear that he might be noncompliant as president. Or maybe they do have something but have now come to realize that Trump is essentially bulletproof from scandal. Imagine Putin with a file of Trump sex scandals on his desk, watching in horror as the “Access Hollywood” came and went with no effect on the outcome of the election. All that blackmail material, useless.

The only material that would hurt Trump is evidence that his campaign actually did coordinate with the Kremlin secretly during the election. There’s no evidence that they did (although the feds are reportedly looking into it), but that’s not to say the FSB couldn’t manufacture some to shock an American public that’s already suspicious of Trump. If it’s true that Putin’s supreme goal is weakening western democracies by sowing chaos, there’d be no better way to achieve that while punishing a recalcitrant Trump than by leaking doctored “proof” of Moscow’s covert assistance to his 2016 effort. We’ll see how hard “hardball” between the U.S. and Russia gets.

But inside the Kremlin, the initial euphoria over having a Putin admirer in the White House is giving way to skepticism that any meaningful detente with the U.S. can be achieved, according to four senior officials in Moscow…

State broadcasters, carefully controlled by the Kremlin, have started adding “no need for illusions” caveats to their copious Trump coverage, though news anchors still went out of their way to reassure viewers that hard-line comments by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, and James Mattis, his pick for defense, were mainly posturing to ensure Senate approval.

But that wasn’t how Russian officials saw it, according to Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. There was a “threatening subtext” in those hearings that suggests the new administration will only make one attempt at reconciliation, he said…

“The Russian leadership definitely preferred Trump to Clinton,” Simes said. “But now they’re concerned. Trump is very impulsive and takes things very personally, so a nice beginning could have a sour conclusion.”

I think they have more to worry about from that last bit than the outspoken hawkishness towards Russia evinced by Trump’s cabinet nominees. It’s true that Russia can’t be comfortable with Mattis at Defense and Tillerson suddenly sounding conspicuously more skeptical of Putin than he was when he got that “friendship” award from him a few years ago. But all of that is contingent upon Mattis and Tillerson having Trump’s ear on foreign policy. If in fact it’s Mike Flynn who ends up calling the shots, which is how I’d bet, then Mattis et al. may be reduced to unhappily carrying out a detente policy of which they’re skeptical.

The true risk for Russia with Trump is his sheer unpredictability. What Nikki Haley said yesterday about his national security team “educating” him on their point of view isn’t crazy. There’s a nonzero chance that Trump will end up as a Russia hawk, sooner than everyone thinks and not as a reaction to anything Moscow did but rather from the sheer weight of influence of the people around him. But even if Trump resists their attempts at persuasion, the U.S./Russia relationship could go south at any time simply because Trump really is that mercurial and hypersensitive to being seen as “weak.” Russia leaked the DNC and Podesta stuff, according to the CIA, because it preferred (understandably) a NATO-skeptic nationalist to a hawkish internationalist like Clinton. But the price of that choice is having an opponent in Washington now whose priorities are hard to gauge and who feels pressure to project strength as much as Putin does, if not more. It’s a bit like preferring to fight a gorilla instead of a man on the theory that the gorilla won’t have a strategy when it’s in the ring and will be easy to manipulate. Maybe, but it might also tear your arm off. I’m reminded of something Dubya once said about a conversation he had with Putin about the Georgia crisis in 2008. When Bush remarked that Georgia’s president was “hot-blooded,” Putin replied that he was hot-blooded too. No, said, Bush, you’re cold-blooded — which of course was true. How does a calculating cold-blooded figure like Putin “manage” a hot-blooded adversary like Trump?

I think the quote in the excerpt about how Russia has one chance at rapprochement with the U.S. and no more is on the money too. With Mattis, Haley, and others whispering in his ear that Putin isn’t to be interested, all it’ll take is one betrayal by Moscow to convince Trump that they’re right and the Russia doves in his cabinet are wrong. Turning against Russia would probably boost Trump’s popularity too, as there are many Democrats angry about their meddling in the campaign who’d like to see the new administration punish them. Putin had better get what he wants from the U.S. before he embarrasses Washington abroad somehow because there probably won’t be a second reset. In the meantime, though, he’s going to enjoy himself: Watch the exchange at 1:30 below between Jake Tapper and former CIA chief Michael Hayden about Putin going out of his way at his own press conferences to praise Trump — while repeating some of the seedier allegations from the dossier published by BuzzFeed. He’s undermining Trump, quite intentionally, even as he touts better relations.