By Neil MacFarquhar
There was crowing in Russia on Monday that the special counsel’s investigation did not find coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign in 2016, but optimism about improved relations was tempered by the report’s extensive focus on Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Official reaction to a summary of Robert Mueller’s report that was released Sunday proved decidedly muted.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that the only news in the summary was the “recognition that there wasn’t any collusion,” and he repeated his denial that Russia had interfered in the US election. Putin has maintained a steady interest in good relations with the United States, he said, while US actions toward Russia have been erratic, so the ball is in Washington’s court.
From others in the Kremlin elite, however, the main refrain was “we told you so,�� along with some hope that President Donald Trump would now be free to pursue his campaign goal of improving relations with Russia.
“Mueller’s long-awaited report proved what was known in Russia from the very beginning,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the upper house of the Russian Parliament, wrote on Facebook. “There was no collusion between Trump and any of his team with Russia.”
Rossiya 24, the main state television news channel, was more mocking, saying it took tens of millions of dollars for “the mountain to bring forth a mouse.”
The full report has not been released and an extended battle is expected in Washington over its fate. But the four-page summary issued by Attorney General William Barr noted twice that the investigation had not established that the Kremlin and the Trump campaign had worked together in the Russian meddling.
“The Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” said Barr’s summary.
Kosachev said he regretted the two lost years during which Russia-US relations were hampered by sanctions and continued accusations of wrongdoing. Various officials and analysts said they hoped that there would be new initiatives soon toward Russia from the Trump administration, but there were varying degrees of optimism about when this might happen and how substantial they might be.
“To some extent, the leader of the United States now has greater room to maneuver, which, in principle, he can use,” Kosachev wrote.
Still, he noted, Congress retains significant control over lifting sanctions and hawks like John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, will not necessarily endorse improving ties.
“In any case, there is a chance to reset to zero a lot in our relations,” Kosachev said, “but will Trump take that risk — for now it’s a question.”
There are, of course, serious issues dividing Moscow and the West that are unrelated to the 2016 election or the Mueller investigation: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, its alliance with Iran and support for President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war, its backing of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and the poisoning of a retired Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in Britain.
“I don’t think this will change much,” said Alexei V Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank. The myriad areas of conflict “do not allow us to consider these relations with optimism,” he said.
Others noted that a significant portion of the Mueller report summary addressed Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election and damage Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Alexander Morozov, a frequent Kremlin critic, noted that the report confirmed Russian interference in the election. The Kremlin can hope to either reset relations, wait until the damage fades or continue with business as usual, said Morozov, a researcher at the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia branch in Prague.
Moscow will likely chose to continue with its campaign of disinformation and disruption against US democracy, he said in an interview.
“It is difficult to imagine that relations can get better now,” he said. “So that means that the Kremlin will try to continue with the hybrid war and also attempt to push this event out of the Russian-American agenda with the help of some new ones.”
Analysts of all stripes said that without the cloud of the Mueller investigation over him, Trump might return to his idea of a grand bargain with Putin, something he had appeared to put on the back burner as the accusations swirled.
“Now he can say this is my political plan and not the result of any wrongdoing,” said Ivan I Kurilla, a historian at the European University at St. Petersburg who specializes in Russia-US relations.
Whether that will be enough to clear a path for Trump is another matter. The Kremlin is cautious about his mercurial moods and Democrats will continue to challenge the president over Russian actions, particularly the election meddling described by Mueller.
“He is not seen as a reliable partner for Russia,” said Dmitry Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia will continue to be what it has been for the last two years in the United States, a political football kicked around by all sides.”