News Brief

Russian Media: Trump is Weak, Putin is Triumphant

Immediately after the joint Trump-Putin press conference that followed the American and Russian president’s 130-minute private meeting, where Donald Trump seemed to side with Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence agencies, Alexander Morozov, a political analyst, wrote on his Facebook page that “the Kremlin’s media won’t even have to edit the footage, the evidence of the Kremlin’s triumph is compelling enough.”

He was right: despite the lack of concrete gains, a headline immediately after the final press conference on Russia’s state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, crowed that the summit was “a turning point.” Putin, it seems, won this round squarely without giving away anything and clearly appeared more competent and in control than Trump.

For Russians, the past several weeks of wall-to-wall World Cup coverage muted any media build-up to the summit, along with a full-blown domestic political crisis over wildly unpopular pension reforms. International matters had taken a backseat, so much so that the early July a visit of a group of U.S. Republican senators to Russia that made headlines in the U.S. went almost unnoticed in Russia.

But the summit has had Russia’s attention. In Russian media coverage of the events leading up to the summit in Helsinki, Donald Trump was mocked on a Sunday news show for turning the NATO meeting in Brussels into “a show of himself” and special attention was paid to mass anti-Trump protests in London.

This tone of contempt followed Trump to Helsinki. Alexey Pushkov, a firebrand Russian senator and a prolific commentator, tweeted before the meeting that Putin has a stronger hand: he’s still basking in the glow of Russia hosting a successful World Cup, has a solid position in Syria and his domestic support is unwavering. Trump, Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote, has just emerged from a difficult and fractured NATO summit and a visit to London marred by mass protests against him, so he’s weaker and can’t dictate his terms.

The narrative of Trump being besieged on all sides by domestic enemies is perhaps the most prevalent in Russian media. On the News on Saturday television show, the host posed a rhetorical question: “But who does Donald Trump represent? His beloved self, that’s obvious. America? Of course, he’s the president, even though he’s constantly hamstrung by Congress.”

While generally avoiding the subject of the Department of Justice indictments handed down on Friday, a RIA Novosti op-ed called the indictments, along with a recent Financial Times investigation into Trump Tower Toronto, “a multi-pronged information sabotage,” suggesting that both originated from the same source of shady Trump-haters. The goal of this sabotage, RIA wrote, is not to derail the Trump-Putin summit so much as to poison the atmosphere so that it is “as hostile as possible.”

Not that pro-Kremlin media and commentators expected much from the Trump-Putin meeting in the first place. In an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a famous Soviet-era youth newspaper turned firmly pro-Kremlin tabloid, an expert argued that with the looming mid-term elections, Trump can’t afford to make any foreign policy promises so as not to alienate his domestic constituency.

That’s a disappointment, according to Russian media, because there is much to get done. Russian officials and commentators carry around a long list of grievances, sometimes an actual checklist, as presented on “News on Saturday” (Vesti v subbotu), a news show on Rossiya, the largest state-owned TV network. Syria and Ukraine top the list of problems between the two countries and the host preemptively blamed the U.S. for avoiding disputed topics such as the INF Treaty, the seizure of Russian diplomatic property in the U.S., and the lack of economic partnership. The issue of the “so-called” interference in the U.S. elections (in Russian state media the phrase never appears without this qualifier) will obviously be raised by the American side but will be met with the usual “Where’s your proof,” the host added optimistically.