'We are relaxed because we are winning again': Russia welcomes an unconventional Trump
U.S. president-elect seen as more willing partner in pursuit of thaw in Russian-American relations
Sergey Karaganov smiles cagily as he describes Russian President Vladimir Putin's strengthened negotiating position.
"We are relaxed because we are winning again."
The honorary head of Russia's influential Council on Foreign and Defence Policy says at this juncture, "most Russians are laughing — some with disgust, some with sympathy — at America's political scene. It's so petty, so stupid."
A picture of a younger Karaganov and a youthful Putin, heads closely conferring, rests on a side table in Karaganov's Moscow office. He's helped shape foreign policy for years and says Russia has a real opportunity now.
"We hope we [Russia and the U.S.] reach an understanding that we should not meddle into each other's affairs.
"Mr. Trump has a much more powerful country behind him, Mr. Putin and Russia has been much more clever than America. So power versus smartness — we'll see," says Karaganov.
The Russian Duma applauded after the U.S. election result, a first. The Kremlin saw Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as the enemy, hostile to Putin, an extension of President Barack Obama, who it says lectured Russia while heaping on economic sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia-U.S. relations are as frosty as a Siberian winter and Russians wonder whether Trump will help change that.
He's a character Putin understands, say some, a ruthless dealmaker willing to eschew liberalism in pursuit of national interests. It helps that he's been so flattering of Putin, having said "he's very much a leader" with "very strong control over a country."
"If he [Putin] says great things about me, I'll say great things about him," Trump said in September.
But days before Trump takes power, Karaganov is circumspect, unsure of what can really change.
Trump is simply an opening, it may be something good will happen, it might be that we fail again,"- Sergey Karaganov
"Trump is simply an opening, it may be something good will happen, it might be that we fail again," says Karaganov.
At Ismailova flea market in Moscow, you can find Trump matryoshka dolls now squeezed in on shelves between Putin and Stalin. One set of nesting dolls reveals members of Trump's family inside, with wife Melania and daughter Ivanka in diminishing sizes and then miniatures of two Trump sons.
"I think it's new hope for [a] good future, for friendship for all people," says Kirill Korchyagin, a vendor.
"We don't know. It's a new person but we hope he gives us new relations, new possibilities."
But at the Moscow offices of the New Times, a weekly newsmagazine, chief editor Yevgenia Albats shudders at the thought of the coming Trump inauguration, only days away.
"Trump is about money. Trump is about interests. And Putin does understand this language."
'Trump is about money. Trump is about interests. And Putin does understand this language.'- Yevgenia Albats
Albats frequently criticizes the Putin regime and says Trump's support is suspicious, potentially dangerous, giving Putin freer rein on revanchism in border countries.
"I think Putin is dreaming about the world where he is in charge and he can do whatever he wants on the territory of the former Soviet Union, that Trump will tell him: 'Do what you want, I couldn't care less.' Human rights? Blah blah ... forget about this."
To Albats, the two leaders share a style of leadership and unflinching pursuits of deals and power.
They are cynics. They are people driven by greed who don't respect the basic rights of people.- Yevgenia Albats
"They are cynics. They are people driven by greed who don't respect the basic rights of people. They think they are people of the 21st century. They're people of the past."
Another formidable critic, journalist Masha Gessen, left Russia after publishing a book — The Man Without A Face — that was critical of Putin's rise to power.
From New York, she warns of a Trump-Putin alliance.
"Putin feels he can manipulate Trump, that Trump has so far said only the things Putin has wanted him to say and that Trump is likely to lift sanctions on Russia."
Trump has said sanctions will stay for now, but if Russia is doing great things they could be lifted, perhaps in exchange for a reduction in nuclear armaments.
Don't trust either Putin or Trump, says Gessen.
"They both lie, often and inconsistently. Both are saying I'm president of the country and king of reality. It's a basic bully tactic, I'm going to say whatever I please and what are you going to do about it."
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Russia, like the world, is standing back trying to read what Trump will actually do when in office. His conflicting signals, on NATO and his divergence from some of his key cabinet picks on sanctions and the Russian threat make the Kremlin nervous.
Karaganov says consistent attacks on Trump at home may weaken him as a useful player for Russia.
"We don't know him as a person," he says. "Nobody knows him as a political leader but with a large part of the political class at his throat he could simply be tainted ...even on his better instincts."
His advice for Putin? "Be aware. He [Trump] could be undermined."
'A fresh breath'
The night of the U.S.election, Russian commentator and journalist Dmitri Drobnitski celebrated in a Moscow bar, saying Trump's win brings "a fresh breath" to American-Russian relations and Russians "loved the victory of Trump over the elite."
Personally, he doesn't love Trump or even like him, calling him a "hooligan" for the "disgusting" things he's said about women, for example, but he's attracted to what Trump is not.
"He's not a liberal, he's not a globalist and although he's a billionaire, he still looks like a real man and the real man is in the soul of Russian people."
Even if "real men" like Trump and Putin employ the tactics of schoolyard toughs.
I like that my president is a bully because you can do nothing about him.- Dmitri Drobnitski
"Definitely they are bullies. Definitely. And I like that my president is a bully because you can do nothing about him," says Drobnitski.
The 45th U.S. president will be the third consecutive U.S. leader or team to try to reset relations with Russia. There was George W. Bush peering into Putin's eyes to see "his soul." Next was Clinton's reset button with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Trump could stage an even more colourful show of co-operation, but Russia watchers warn it could combust just like the others.
"If there's a marked improvement in Russia-America relations, then Putin faces a problem," says Gessen.
"He needs the U.S. as an enemy. He has mobilized his population around this idea and carried out proxy wars with Ukraine and Syria.
"I'm worried this can't go well."