The latter possibility was deemed unrealistic anyway because of Russian assumptions about the primacy of the executive. “The American elites” or “the system” would not let Trump win, according to Russian conventional wisdom in 2016.
Several top U.S.-watchers in Russia who spoke to Bloomberg immediately after election night admitted they did not expect a Trump win. Most of them predicted that Putin was likely to be cautious to see just how far Trump was ready to go before opening the embrace too far.
Still, the whole argument back then focused on whether it would be a Clinton or a Trump presidency. Now, eight months after the election, Russia is realizing that the constellation of forces it has to deal with in the U.S. includes Congress, the intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and the media — not just the executive.
Even if you hack the executive or somehow manage to co-opt it, “the system” may turn against you, because it is more complex than you thought. Moscow was aiming at dealing with what it considered its equal, the executive. Instead, it ended up strengthening another branch of government, the legislature.
“The system” is an important phrase in Russia. The term is often used to refer to the kind of influence the government institutions, security forces, police and intelligence agencies have over society. The historian Stephen Kotkin called it “uncivil society.”
A good “uncivil society” — or, according to the Russian establishment, a clever society — is one that can keep its grip on power while holding elections and producing some superficial changes. Many in Moscow are convinced, not entirely without reason, that this is how the U.S. system works.
They thought that mastering this trick was the main thing to learn from the Americans. “Americans have taught me that the system always prevails,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the International Relations Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, in an interview with Rossia-1 state television channel.