Russia joined President Donald Trump on Monday in claiming vindication with the end of the special counsel's investigation. But a new dawn in U.S.-Russia ties still seems far off.
The lack of a finding by special counsel Robert Mueller that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia served as an opportunity for Kremlin allies to renew their claim that Moscow didn't interfere in the 2016 election at all.
Asked on his daily conference call with journalists Monday about the conclusion of Mueller's investigation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to "a Chinese philosopher who said, 'It is hard to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there.' "
"Centuries have passed, but unfortunately there has been no understanding of this on the other side of the ocean," Peskov said.
Attorney General William Barr's letter to Congress outlining Mueller's findings said the special counsel did find that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election. But an anchor on "Time Will Tell," a daytime political talk show on Russian state TV, summarized the news thus: "They didn't find anything. The investigation was useless. Its results proved that it was useless."
For Moscow, the question now is whether the end of the Mueller investigation can breathe new life into Russia's trans-Atlantic policy goals. After the 2016 election, Russian officials had hoped that Trump's presidency could herald a chance to lift sanctions on Moscow, engage in new arms control talks and win U.S. support for Russian foreign policy priorities in Ukraine and beyond.
Instead, in Moscow's view, those hopes were dashed by a U.S. foreign policy establishment that used allegations of Russian election interference to undermine Trump's plans to improve U.S.-Russia ties.
U.S. sanctions against Russia have only increased in severity since Trump took office, and U.S. policy from Ukraine to Venezuela has continued to confront Russian interests. Mainstream Russian foreign policy experts last year took to predicting that it would take until the conclusion of the Mueller investigation for a new opportunity to emerge to change the relationship with Washington.
That new opportunity may have finally arrived, Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a Facebook post Monday. Russia had to seize the opportunity to deal with Trump, the Russian lawmaker wrote, now that the cloud of collusion allegations no longer loomed over the White House. For starters, Kosachyov said, nuclear arms control should be at the top of the agenda.
"The effect of the Mueller report puts all the aces in the Trump team's hands," Kosachyov said. "There's a chance to reset much in our relationship, but the question is whether Trump will risk it."
But Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Moscow political analyst, said in an interview that officials needed to keep expectations low. Even though Trump has often paid lip service to the need to improve relations with Russia, Lukyanov said, Trump's actions have shown that the president has little interest in actually doing so.
"I'm personally afraid that, indeed, there might be some illusions now that something new will happen," said Lukyanov, chairman of Russia's Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group. He predicted new efforts by the Kremlin to build ties with Trump and, perhaps, to hold another summit. "But from my point of view," Lukyanov went on, "it's completely hopeless."
What appears certain, however, is that Mueller's investigation concluding without a finding of Trump-Russia collusion gives Kremlin allies new grist for criticizing U.S. institutions. Rather than hail Mueller's exhaustive investigation as a triumph of American due process, Russian President Vladimir Putin's backers echoed the more conspiratorial rhetoric of Trump supporters in the United States. The notion of Russian interference in 2016, they said, was itself fake news.
"Colossal effort and, clearly, significant taxpayer resources went into disproving an obvious fake," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. As for Mueller's indictments against Russian intelligence officers and others for interfering in the election, the ministry said, "the political motivation behind these cases is so obvious that they're impossible to characterize other than as an embarrassment to the American justice system."
Lawmaker Alexey Pushkov, a foreign affairs specialist in the upper house of parliament, described Mueller's findings as exonerating Trump in the face of a "virtual conspiracy" of U.S. news media and Democrats that was aimed at demonizing Russia.
"The agents of conspiracy theory have been discredited," Pushkov posted on Twitter. "From now on, only an idiot can believe them."
A post by the pro-Kremlin television network RT on the instant messaging platform Telegram said the Pulitzer Prize won by The New York Times and Washington Post in 2018 for reporting on Russian election interference was "a Pulitzer for fake news." Hours earlier, Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, had referred on Twitter to that prize as the "#fakenews awards."
The Washington Post's Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.