Report: Kremlin tells Russian media to back off on fawning Trump coverage

One theory of why Russian media is turning cooler on Trump right now is that it’s basic kabuki to hide the White House’s relationship with the Kremlin. At a moment when stories about Team Trump chattering to Russian intelligence during the campaign are splashed all over CNN and the New York Times, the obvious play by both sides is to show the world that they’re actually not all that chummy. The suspicions around Flynn in particular, whom Russia saw as someone they could work with, all but guarantees that Trump will take a harder line now against Moscow than he otherwise might have. Whether there was collusion or there wasn’t, Russian media has an incentive to back off of the Trump love-fest in the short term.

That’s the cynical theory, that Putin is manufacturing criticism of Trump domestically to create a false impression that Trump is tougher on him than Americans realize. The charitable theory, which has some evidence to back it up, is that Russia really does see Trump as more of an adversary than it anticipated last year. And not just for the obvious reasons that he’s unpredictable and won’t want to lose face to Putin abroad:

The Kremlin ordered state media to cut way back on their fawning coverage of President Donald Trump, reflecting a growing concern among senior Russian officials that the new U.S. administration will be less friendly than first thought, three people familiar with the matter said…

Vladimir Putin’s administration justified the decision to curb coverage of Trump by saying that Russian viewers no longer find details of his transition to power interesting, according to one of the people. In reality, some of the most popular TV segments on Trump touched on ideas the Kremlin would rather not promote, such as his pledge to “drain the swamp,” the person said…

[T]he wall-to-wall [pro-Trump campaign] coverage went too far for the Kremlin’s liking. In January, Trump received more mentions in the media than Putin, relegating the Russian leader to the No. 2 spot for the first time since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after four years as premier, according to Interfax data.

That’s from Bloomberg, the same outlet that reported a few weeks ago that Russian officials had begun to worry that any detente with Trump would be short-lived because “Trump is very impulsive and takes things very personally.” The NYT has been watching Russian media and noticed a recent change in tone as well:

Vladimir R. Soloviev, the host of a noisy Sunday night talk show on state-run television viewed as reflecting Kremlin policy, this week issued one of the most negative public assessments yet of Mr. Trump. “Don’t be charmed by Trump,” he said in a message he addressed to all politicians and experts. “Don’t think that Trump is a pro-Russian politician. Don’t hope that Trump, in the interests of Russia, will in any way go against the basic, rooted interests of America.”…

Some voices in Moscow cautioned that Mrs. Clinton, as a calmer hand on the tiller, would be the kind of predictable leader that the Kremlin preferred, albeit a hostile one. Now, there is a sense that the Kremlin might be unsettled by the president of a far more powerful country deploying Mr. Putin’s favorite tactic: unpredictability

On Monday, one of the first op-ed articles depicting Mr. Trump as erratic appeared in Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular tabloid. Mr. Trump provoked an immediate constitutional crisis, the piece said, so who could guarantee that his policy toward Russia would be consistent?

“Majority disapprove of Trump after 8 days in office,” ran a headline late last month on the Russian propaganda station RT. And as I said, there’s reason to believe this halting antagonism is genuine, not just theater for public consumption. Russia has engaged in a series of minor provocations against the U.S. lately, capped by a more significant provocation when they deployed SSC-8 missiles to threaten Europe in violation of the INF Treaty. Trump allegedly told Putin on a phone call last week that the New START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia was a bad deal for the U.S. and one he may want to revisit. Most significantly, some of Trump’s biggest administration mouthpieces have been talking awfully tough lately about Ukraine. Nikki Haley blasted Russia in her first address at the UN, emphasizing that the U.S. won’t recognize Russia’s authority over Crimea. Notably, Sean Spicer repeated that point just two days ago. If this is kabuki, it’s hard to understand why Trump would let his deputies draw a red line around a matter as sensitive to Russia as Crimea. Every bold word by Haley and Spicer makes it harder for Trump to make a concession on that subject without losing all credibility.

Spicer’s comment in particular got the Russians grumbling that they hope Trump still intends to keep his campaign promises about repairing relations with Moscow. This mysterious tweet from the Russian embassy, nudging Trump on sanctions, appeared just a few days ago:

The odd photo choice has led to some interesting theories about what that tweet might mean. But like I say: With the White House itself talking tough on Crimea after Trump sounded open to Russian dominion over the peninsula during the campaign, it may well be that Trump really is proving to be more of a headache for Putin than he and his cronies expected. If so, having spent months to condition the Russian public to see Trump as some sort of kindred spirit and herald of a new thaw between east and west, Russian media understandably will want to start un-conditioning them as soon as possible.