By Mikhail Klimentov
Leading up to the 12 June Singapore summit between North Korea and the United States, Russian state and state-aligned media portrayed the US as an untrustworthy negotiating partner, and implied that President Donald Trump lacked the intelligence to carry out high-level negotiations. But these same outlets adopted a very different narrative in the run up to the recent meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin on 16 July in Helsinki.
Crucially, depicting the US in the same unfavorable light as during the Singapore summit would have undermined the significance of the Trump-Putin meeting. As a result, Russian media dropped the depiction of the US as untrustworthy, and did not highlight Trump’s supposed incompetence: the former implied that the meeting in Helsinki could easily be made irrelevant, and the latter downplayed Trump’s executive power to change policy, and called into question the fruitfulness of future Russian engagement with him. Instead, the media focused on criticizing those who they believed were holding bilateral relations hostage: Western journalists preoccupied with poring over old news, and a political establishment bent on rebuking Trump’s agenda.
Across Russian state and state-aligned media, Trump largely evades consistent characterization. Instead, he alternates from being contemptible in his stupidity to being a pragmatists and cunning strategist. In this sense, Trump does not need to be an actual foreign agent, or the subject of “kompromat” to be useful. He has become valuable as a character to be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly for the purposes of Russia’s media narratives.
In the shadow of the Iran Deal
When discussing the Trump-Kim summit, Russian news outlets highlighted US behaviour towards other nuclear states to portray the Trump administration as untrustworthy. President Trump’s approach to policy has been to encourage discontinuity—an impulse that has created chaos at home and abroad. Abandoning one of the biggest foreign policy initiatives of the Obama administration, the Iran Deal, was a clear indication that Trump is not committed to upholding past agreements, a bad sign for countries looking to engage high-stakes nuclear talks with his administration.
“By pledging to break one nuclear deal just as he enters negotiations for another, Mr. Trump risks sending the message that American promises are empty, giving adversaries little reason to make concessions”, writes Max Fisher of the New York Times. Dimitri Smirnov, a correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda and a member of the Kremlin press corps, had a similar reaction. Responding to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert’s statement that North Korea could see a “brighter future” post-denuclearization, Smirnov tweeted: “This from the representative of a country that just deceived Iran and insulted its allies in the EU”.
Russian state TV also used Trump’s unclear explanation of his strategy towards North Korea to portray the leader as incompetent and out of his depth. In one monologue, Dmitri Kiselev, the Putin-appointed head of the government news agency Rossiya Sevodnya, played a lengthy, uncut clip of Trump expounding on an earlier comment by National Security Adviser John Bolton. The host introduced the clip with a sarcastic entreaty to his listeners: “Trump speaks floridly. Let us together try to push through his speech patterns and gain insight into the creator’s mindset. Be patient. This may take some energy. But this is important, for these are the words of the President of the United States”.
On Tsargrad TV, political scientist Sergei Miheev argued that Kim had proved himself a far more flexible and able statesman than Trump. “Trump promised to bring about military destruction, promised military operations, and didn’t do any of that. Now he’s going to a summit with Kim despite calling it off”, said Miheev. “So Trump’s claim that ‘I didn’t make concessions, Kim made concessions,’ that’s for idiots [to believe].”
High hopes in Helsinki
As the Trump-Putin summit approached, the tone of the conversation surrounding Trump shifted significantly. Instead of condescension directed at the president, Russian outlets focused on critiques of Western media and the “establishment.” In this new narrative, Trump was positioned as a forward-thinking potential ally to Russia—but one who faced consistent and unwavering opposition from forces outside of his control. Russian state media used this new narrative to legitimize Russia’s role in international discourse. To that end, Russian outlets focused on three talking points: first, the Helsinki summit was a huge success in that it happened at all; second, this first meeting would lead to future meetings; and third, that sustained relations between the two world leaders would ensue.
In a monologue from a broadcast on 27 June, Kiselev made the case that US-Russian relations were in such a bad place that any movement would be positive. “The field of Russian-American relations has become overgrown, and neglected to the point of dilapidation”, he stated. “Can the leaders of the US and Russia clear the thicket during the upcoming summit? Unlikely. But it’s important to begin somewhere.” During a special edition of the political talk-show, 60 Minutes, filmed live during the summit, host Olga Skabeeva asked the panelists to discuss how the meeting between the two heads of state might benefit Russia. Journalist Mikhail Taratuta responded that “one of the goals for Putin was to affirm Russia as a global player[.] We achieved that goal”.
Alexey Pushkov, a Russian TV show host and Chairman of the Commission on Information and Media, reiterated the significance of the meeting: “I don’t exclude that we may see some steps back from Trump,” stated Pushkov on 60 Minutes. However, he continued, “the atmosphere in Helsinki, the shift we saw, that is significant. The visibly-improving relationship between the two presidents, they are essential. Not even Trump’s return to the US can undo this”.
Instead of a negative view of Trump, western journalists were a key focus of criticism. On the news program, Vesti, the anchor said that journalists who asked questions about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections were suffering from “phantom pains”. Elsewhere, they were described as “liberal russophobic media” and “gaslighters”.
“Let’s not give in to the euphoria of the moment. Trump is about to return to the US, where he will be ambushed”, said Pushkov on 60 Minutes. “They will say Putin wants to be friends with him and he wants to be friends with Putin, which is already a crime in the eyes of the American media.”
Robert Mueller, the head of the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, was also an object of scrutiny. “Of course, Mueller is under the influence of those forces which are very unhappy with the results of the 2016 election”, said Boris Mezhuev, a Russian political scientist, on 60 Minutes. “Even if he is not an opponent of Trump’s, but an objective person, still, those who initiated this investigation are Trump’s opponents.”
The utility of Trump
There is tension between presenting Trump as unintelligent and unreliable, then pivoting to emphasize his unwavering dedication to normalizing relations with Russia. It is especially noteworthy given that, generally speaking, Russian state media has treated American political figures with unwavering skepticism and is quick to brand them as an enemy of the Kremlin.
Michael McFaul, is one key example. The former ambassador to Russia under President Obama was demonized by state and state-adjacent media after meeting with activists and opposition leaders early in his ambassadorship. “Two uneventful sixty-minute sessions [with opposition leaders and civil society activists], however, would have profound consequences for U.S.-Russian relations — and for me personally,” wrote McFaul in The Washington Post. “For the rest of my time as ambassador, news coverage from these meetings would be used to portray me as an enemy of the Russian state.” Trump has not been labeled an enemy of the state, though his government has done much to undermine Russian interests lately.
Trump has avoided lasting characterizations because his lack of clear policy direction or serious ideological convictions makes him a useful slate upon which to project narratives. The two summits demonstrate how Trump can be spun to serve two distinct purposes.
In the run up to the Kim-Trump summit, the Russian media narratives worked to undermine US credibility to emphasize Russia’s own role as an engaged and serious actor in the region. “The role of Russia and China is now very important. It’s very important for there to be ongoing dialogue with other countries in the region”, said Sergei Zheleznyak, a member of the Russian State Duma, on a broadcast of 60 Minutes the day after the Korea summit. “Today, that thankfully does not depend on Trump.”
The tentative peace brought on by the summit, and perhaps more importantly, by surrounding negotiations between North Korea, South Korea, and China, created favorable conditions for more open conversation between Russia and its neighbors about future partnerships and economic engagement. A 22 June meeting between Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae-in further conveyed this. In remarks to the press, the two reaffirmed their commitment to infrastructure cooperation, “specifically including railways, electricity generation, gas, ship-building, and port infrastructure”. The two governments also signed a range of memorandums around innovation, economic cooperation, investment, and trade, according to the Russian news agency, TASS.
The priorities surrounding the Trump-Russia summit, however, were different. The repeated assurances that the meeting itself was an achievement suggest that Russian was aware concrete policy outcomes were unlikely. Despite this, Russia has been eager to capitalize on the meeting as proof of regained credibility on the international stage, and that this first meeting will lead to future meetings—a claim bolstered by recently-announced plans for a meeting between Trump and Putin in the White House. The objections of hawks and traditional conservatives in the president’s orbit and the hastily-put-together reversal put out by the White House are unlikely to change this. As a story broken by Bloomberg on the Thursday after the summit revealed, Russia has already started looking for ways to push its agenda. According to the report, Putin told diplomats in a closed-door session that he and Trump had discussed a referendum to settle the conflict in Ukraine.
Although many western journalists have fixated on the warm relationship between Putin and Trump, the Russian narrative surrounding Trump is not uniformly positive. The stark contrast between the media treatment of the US leading up to the Singapore summit in June and leading up to the Helsinki summit in July reveals how the figure of Trump is manipulated by Russian state television—and to what end.