In his four-hour, stage-managed year-end news conference Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to back U.S. President Donald Trump in the impeachment saga unfolding in Washington.
Lambasting American Democrats for what he termed "made-up reasons" to impeach Trump, a Republican, the Russian leader accused them of nursing a grudge over losing the 2016 presidential elections.
The impeachment is "just the continuation of the domestic political strife," Putin said. "Your members of Congress should know better."
Putin added there’s little chance the Republican-controlled Senate will remove Trump from office. He disputed a key article of impeachment against the U.S. president: that Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate a political rival, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat who is competing for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
"The party which lost the election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results by other means, first by accusing Trump of conspiring with Russia, then it turns out there has been no conspiracy," Putin said. "This cannot be the basis of impeachment. Now they’ve invented some kind of pressure on Ukraine."
Agitation of domestic US policy
Moscow-based diplomats say Putin’s defense of his American counterpart had the aim of further agitating domestic politics in the United States.
"He knows full well his comments, his trolling of Democrats, is adding salt to domestic U.S. political wounds," a Western diplomat told VOA. "The main foreign-policy aim of the Kremlin is to encourage political divisions in the West."
But Putin’s praise of Trump -- and the U.S. leader’s often complimentary remarks about his Russian counterpart -- have not helped to improve U.S-Russian relations, widely seen as being at their lowest point since before the Cold War ended.
And few analysts and diplomats believe that will change next year, despite the overlapping views the two leaders have often expressed about Europe and NATO, or Trump’s recent suggestion that Russia be readmitted to the exclusive Group of Seven industrialized countries. The group had eight members until 2014, when Russia was disinvited over the annexation of Crimea.
Both the Kremlin and the White House have repeatedly expressed a wish to improve relations, most recently during a visit earlier this month to the U.S. capital by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"We should have a better relationship -- the United States and Russia -- than we’ve had in the last few years, and we’ve been working on that," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart.
He noted U.S. and Russian law-enforcement agencies are cooperating on an almost "daily basis" on counterterrorism and counternarcotics. He said both Moscow and Washington agree there are no military solutions to the conflicts raging in Syria or Afghanistan, although they are far apart on how they can be brought to an end.
For his part, Lavrov said the meetings in Washington have "confirmed that it is useful to talk to each other." He added, "Talking to each other is always better than not talking to each other."
But both nations' top diplomats highlighted the gulf between them on a host of issues, from Ukraine to Venezuela to arms control to Iran.
And on the issue of Russian meddling in U.S. politics, the two had very different takes. "I was clear it’s unacceptable, and I made our expectations of Russia clear," Pompeo said. Lavrov denied the Kremlin has interfered at all.
With all these overhanging issues -- along with what U.S. officials describe as malign Russian activities, including slayings and attempted assassinations on foreign soil of Moscow’s foes -- U.S. officials are wary of even attempting a reset with Russia, fearing the effort will be as doomed as the Obama administration’s push to transform relations between the two countries. To do so would raise expectations that likely would be subsequently dashed, leaving both sides worse off and feeling aggrieved, they say.
Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, "It would be great if we could get Russia to behave like a more normal country. But you also can't ignore the last many years of history where Russia has invaded Georgia. It has annexed Crimea. It is occupying parts of Ukraine. It is threatening the Baltic States."
U.S. officials aren’t alone in saying a reset gambit would be unwise. Chatham House analysts James Nixey and Mathieu Boulègue say making grand overtures toward the Kremlin would be repeating the mistakes of other Western leaders, past and present.
Criticism for Macron
In a recent commentary for the London-based think tank, they criticized French leader Emmanuel Macron’s calls in September for Russia to be brought back into the Western fold, saying his courtship of Moscow overlooks principles and evidence, and would excuse Russia from any responsibility for the frozen conflicts triggered by the Kremlin around its periphery.
"That olive branches have been extended to Vladimir Putin countless times over the past 20 years does not necessarily mean that no more should ever be forthcoming, should a future Kremlin leadership offer any meaningful concession. What it definitely does mean, however, is that the lessons need to be learned as to why they have been rebuffed hitherto: because ‘what Russia wants’ is incompatible with established Western conceptions," Nixey and Boulègue said.
Kremlin insiders also see little hope of any major improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington, although they place the blame for that on U.S. and European governments. Their assessment of future relations between Russia and the West is bleak and reflects, they say, Putin’s own appraisal.
"He doesn't think it is possible," said an insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
They blame the sharp slide in relations since the era of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the expansion of NATO eastwards to take in the former communist Baltic States. They say the final blow came with the 2013-14 Maidan unrest that led to the ouster of Putin ally Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. The Kremlin remains adamant that the Maidan agitation was Western-fomented and not a popular uprising.
The blaming of the West for the return of Cold War-like enmity, and the sense of pessimism, illustrates how difficult it will be to bridge the rift and suggests Russia’s relations with the U.S. and Europe are likely to remain antagonistic.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, says continued antagonism invites serious danger.
A so-called "political technologist" for Putin before breaking with the Russian leader in 2012 over his decision to seek a third term as president, Pavlovsky paints a picture of an insecure Kremlin that frequently improvises and bluffs and "has not inherited from the Soviet Union an instinct for understanding risk and how far you can push risks."
He added, "Putin is an improviser. And as with all improvisers, he’s an opportunist."