MOSCOW - Russia has reacted defensively and cautiously this week after the resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was considered among the most Kremlin-friendly in the new administration.
Russia’s initial euphoria when Trump took office is fading after Flynn's resignation and Trump’s call for Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. Russia considered Flynn key to promoting improved relations with the United States.
In 2015, Flynn controversially celebrated a Kremlin-funded propaganda TV channel with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"I think that it worries Russian lawmakers and Russian policymakers because he has been considered to be one of very few pro-Russian American politicians,” said Pavel Sharikov, with the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.
While the Kremlin called Flynn’s resignation a U.S. internal matter, Russian lawmakers described it as politically motivated against Russia.
"Yes, Flynn wrote in his report that he did not tell the president about his contacts with the leadership of the Russian embassy in the USA.,” said the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at Russia’s State Duma Leonid Slutsky. “But this may be some sort of political and informational action, which was prepared in advance."
Ruffling feathers with Ukraine
Trump’s shifting this week to a tougher stance on Crimea also ruffled feathers in Russia.
Russian officials bluntly dismissed the Trump White House calling on Russia, for the first time, to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.
"We do not give back our own territory,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Crimea is territory belonging to the Russian Federation. That is it."
During his election campaign, Trump hinted he might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. Trump’s comments raised hopes in Moscow he might move to lift sanctions imposed over Crimea and for Moscow’s military support for separatists in east Ukraine.
U.S. lawmakers critical of Trump are not taking any chances; they introduced a bill this week to block the president from lifting sanctions against Russia over Ukraine without first getting congressional approval.
Issue of Trump aide contacts
Some are calling for a deeper inquiry into White House ties to Russia amid ongoing investigations into former Trump aids.
A Kremlin spokesman denied a New York Times report of contacts between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian intelligence agents.
"This is purely a newspaper report which is not based on any facts. And which does not point to any real facts,” said Dmitry Peskov.
Trump also dismissed the allegations as “nonsense.”
On the streets of Moscow, Russians are still hopeful that relations with the United States will improve under Trump, but they also are increasingly cautious as the controversy and political turmoil play out.
“We do not know what line he will choose, but Crimea is Russian for sure,” said accountant Alexandra. “I do not know how he will carry on, but I hope for the better. I hope that we will have good relations with America.”
Adding to tensions are allegations the Kremlin violated the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) with a recent deployment. Peskov rejected the concern, saying no official complaint had been lodged by the U.S.
Russia, likewise, dismissed reports it positioned spy ships off the U.S. East Coast and that Russian jets buzzed a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea.
President Trump at a Thursday press conference acknowledged the spy ship and said some of his critics might think it would be great if he were to attack it, but he said, “that’s not great.” He went on to say, “But hopefully, I won’t have to do anything, but I’m not going to tell you.”
When asked if he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was testing him with the recent moves, Trump said “No, I don’t think so. I think Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal.”
“Now, I don’t know that we’re going to make a deal,” Trump added. “I don’t know. We might. We might not. But it would be much easier for me to be so tough — the tougher I am on Russia, the better. But you know what? I want to do the right thing for the American people. And to be honest, secondarily, I want to do the right thing for the world.”