Friend or foe, Putin's making the most of Trump

Putin spokesman on US-Russia relations
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Story highlights

  • Jill Dougherty: Trump's love affair with Putin is playing out well for Russia and Putin's candidacy for the 2018 elections
  • Trump's travails can serve the Kremlin's ambitions: A message to the world that the US is a shambles, she writes

Jill Dougherty is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)For weeks after Donald Trump's election, "Trumpomania" ruled the Russian airwaves.

Jill Dougherty
State-controlled media were besotted with the rich American who didn't insult their President or lambaste their country for human rights violations -- who actually thought it would be "nice" if Russia and America "got along."
Russian TV carried more news about Trump than about Vladimir Putin. It seemed only a matter of time before Trump would lift economic sanctions on Russia and join hands with Putin to fight terrorism.
    But the sanctions stayed in place. Trump started Tweeting about winning an arms race. His UN ambassador condemned Moscow for annexing Crimea. Then came "KremlinGate."
    In Moscow, the love affair is cooling. State media are dialing down the temperature on Trump -- fast. Whole newscasts go by without a word about him. Like a spurned lover telling a friend how it all went wrong, Kremlin spinmeisters are trying to make sense of it all for Russian viewers.
    They're not blaming Trump, yet, although hints of dissatisfaction at his management style sometimes creep in. Instead, they're reaching back in their propaganda playbook for some tried-and-true tropes about the United States.
    Master media showman Dmitry Kiselev, in his weekly TV program "News of the Week," gave a textbook vision of why Trump isn't delivering on his promise to improve the relationship with America.
    The "oligarchic media" -- the same ones Trump has called "enemies of the American people," Kiselev noted -- are at war with the new president, determined to bring him down.
    "Radical liberals" won't accept the results of the election and are "plotting a revolution". Even a mention of Russia by Trump or his administration carries "high political risk."
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    If this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because you have heard it before. Soviet Cold War propaganda employed similar themes. Exploiting America's real faults, like racial and economic inequality, it depicted the United States as a hell-on-Earth for poor people and minorities. The country was run by the rich, usually depicted as fat men in top hats and striped pants. America's proletariat had no chance to change the system.
    True, fitting Trump into this picture takes some creative cutting and pasting. After all, he is rich and so are most of his top officials. So the Kremlin has had to redefine who runs America. Mr Moneybags is out; the "oligarchic media" is in. Cribbing a word usually used to describe billionaire Russian businessmen, the Kremlin-controlled media now quote Trump and his favorite phrase "fake media."
    The Kremlin's media messaging is borrowing other expressions from the US President.
    Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov decries "media hysterics" in the United States. Dmitry Kiselev says "radical liberals" are working against the President.
    Why is the Kremlin so interested in US democracy? Like their Soviet ancestors, it's a way to kill at least two birds with one stone.
    Moscow gets to criticize the United States as a fake democracy. Like Trump during the presidential campaign, it can call it a rigged system. Any lessons about democracy the United States wants to teach the world are bogus. The US media are "enemies of the people" -- ironically, a phrase used from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution.
    The Russian state media's persecution of Trump theme also gives the Kremlin a chance to warn Russian citizens that it could happen at home.
    We've heard before about radical liberals want to bring down Vladimir Putin. Divided societies are doomed. Enemies are out to rock the boat and carry out a silent coup.
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    All this is playing out in Russia against the backdrop of its own political drama: the 2018 presidential campaign, in which Vladimir Putin is expected to run again.
    Trump isn't Putin. The Kremlin knows that only too well. Trump's lack of discipline, his unpredictability, his incapacity to grab the reins and run the United States the way he wants to do not bode well for attaining Russia's objectives.
    But, at this point, Trump's travails can serve the Kremlin's ambitions: a message to the world that the United States is a shambles, a message to the Russian people that the only way to ride out the coming storm is to stick with Putin.