MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a staunch ally of President Vladimir Putin, threw a champagne party in Russia’s parliament in 2016 to toast Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.
But this weekend, the veteran lawmaker says his youth activists will be outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow chanting “Take Biden and Trump Down!” ahead of Tuesday’s election.
“He (Trump) has done nothing good for us,” Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, told Reuters.
“But we’re acting according to the Russian saying that you choose the lesser of two evils. Biden is too great an evil.”
Zhirinovsky often indulges in clownish showmanship and firebrand nationalist rhetoric. But the 74-year-old veteran lawmaker’s comments are also seen as sometimes capturing the zeitgeist in the Kremlin - which concerning the U.S. election appears to be a tepid preference for Trump.
The Russian lower house of parliament greeted Trump’s 2016 win with applause, relishing his praise of Putin and stated desire for better ties.
Four years on, that euphoria has evaporated.
To be sure, the polarisation that Trump spurred in U.S. politics was welcomed by some parts of the Russian political elite.
“While they’ve been fighting among themselves, they (the Americans) have been too busy to fully pay attention to us, and that’s how we like it,” said one Russian official, who declined to be named. “We don’t like it when others poke their noses into our affairs”.
But the Kremlin’s hopes of better U.S.-Russia ties never materialised.
Instead, Washington hit Russia with a slew of sanctions over alleged U.S. election meddling and other actions, tried to stymie its showcase Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, and pulled out of a key nuclear arms treaty.
“Under Trump, basically all the pillars of the relationship were destroyed,” said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
“We had a diplomatic war, both embassies became like besieged fortresses. And diplomacy in a sense was replaced by sanctions,” said Kortunov, referring to a wave of diplomatic expulsions over the poisoning of a Russian double agent in Britain in 2018.
BIDEN’S TOUGH STANCE
The Kremlin has said Russia will work with any U.S. leader and recent statements from Putin on the issue suggest he is hedging his bets, praising and criticising both Trump and Biden.
Privately, Russian government officials say they have zero hopes of better ties if Trump wins, as they expect his room for manoeuvre to continue to be severely limited by Congress and U.S. domestic politics.
They see Biden as tougher on Russia, but less unpredictable than Trump to deal with and perhaps more open to doing deals on nuclear arms control.
The election has weighed on the rouble for months, with investors associating a Biden victory with greater risk of more sanctions.
The official rhetoric, from Zhirinovsky and others, suggests however that Trump remains Moscow’s favoured candidate, even if past enthusiasm for him has faded.
The Kremlin has accused Biden of stoking hatred of Russia by naming it as the biggest threat to U.S. national security.
While the 2018 summit in Helsinki showed Putin and Trump appeared to get on well at a personal level, there are no such hopes for a Putin-Biden relationship.
“Clearly these two personalities are not great admirers of one another,” said Kortunov.
Editing by Frances Kerry
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