MOSCOW — Asserting himself abroad with his customary disruptive panache, President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday jumped into the furor over President Donald Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, declaring that nothing secret had been revealed and that he could prove it.
Putin, who has a long record of seizing on foreign crises to make Russia’s voice heard, announced during a news conference in Sochi, Russia, the Black Sea resort that has become his equivalent of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, that he has a “record” of the U.S. president’s meeting at the White House with two senior Russian officials and was ready to give it to Congress — so long as Trump does not object.
Referring to reports that Trump had revealed highly classified intelligence, Putin said, “It’s hard to imagine what else these people who generate such nonsense and rubbish can dream up next.”
Putin’s offer to release a record of what was said, made after a meeting with the visiting prime minister of Italy, Paulo Gentiloni, suggested less an effort to create clarity over what Trump actually said in the Oval Office last Wednesday than a headline-grabbing assertion of his own authority and a reminder that he should not be ignored.
To that end, the Russian government has been angling for months for a meeting between Putin and Trump, who has met a host of foreign leaders since he took office in January but has only spoken with the Russian president by telephone. They are expected to get together during a summit meeting of the Group of 20 nations in Germany in July.
As with many of Putin’s maneuvers, his offer to release a record of the White House meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its Washington ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, seemed designed to unnerve and confuse.
For a start, the offer left everyone guessing about what kind of “record” Putin has of his diplomats’ meeting with Trump. Intentionally or otherwise, Putin muddied the waters by using a Russian word that can mean both audio recording and a written account. A Kremlin aide, Yury Ushakov, later clarified that Moscow has in its possession a written transcript, not a tape.
“I think Putin gets personal pleasure from exploiting the vulnerable position Trump has found himself in,” said Valeriy Solovey, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Putin feels superior and this flatters him.”
But, he added, the main target of Putin’s intervention was domestic opinion, as has been the case with most moves by the Russian president that baffle and dismay foreigners.
“This was a well prepared impromptu move,” Solovey said. “The goal is to demonstrate the superiority of the Russian political system, in which major decisions can be made swiftly and effectively. From the Russian point of view, what happens in Washington these days demonstrates the total inability of the U.S. president to make any decisions that are needed in this situation.”
Putin’s remarks are unlikely to please the White House, which has given conflicting accounts of what Trump told the Russians and has resisted giving details of their conversation.
Aleksei V. Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow research group, said he doubted Putin had set out to offend Trump and questioned whether the Russian record would ever see the light of day.
“On the personal level, Trump clearly wants to improve relations with Russia. The problem is that he is also president of the U.S., head of the state apparatus. This makes it much more difficult to make deals with Russia,” Makarkin said.
Putin’s offer, he added, was “pure rhetoric because the condition is that Trump should sign up to the idea. The American side should give its permission and this is a big problem. How can it give its permission if secret matters were discussed?”
And even if the White House does assent to the release of the Russian record, making it public is unlikely to clear the air, Makarkin said. “If Russia published a transcript, people wouldn’t believe it anyway,” he added. “The media can say that not everything was published and that this document cannot be trusted.”
U.S. officials have said that Trump revealed secret information provided by Israel about a planned terrorist operation by the Islamic State group. In the process, they say, he named the city in Syria where the information was collected, potentially jeopardizing the source.
Trump has acknowledged discussing terrorism but has not specified what he told the Russian envoys.
Putin dismissed the claim that Trump had revealed any information that could be considered highly sensitive, returning to a favorite Kremlin theme: that the United States is gripped by an anti-Russian fever.
“What surprises me is that they are shaking up the domestic political situation, using anti-Russian slogans. Either they don’t understand the damage they’re doing to their own country, in which case they are simply stupid, or they understand everything, in which case they are dangerous and corrupt,” Putin said.
Making light of the Oval Office episode and the value of Trump’s disclosure, Putin joked that he would reprimand Lavrov because “he hasn’t shared those secrets with us.”
Putin’s fans in Russia reacted with delight to Putin’s move, with Sergei A. Markov, an analyst close to the Kremlin, rejoicing on Twitter over the Russian president’s assertiveness. “Well done, Putin. He surfed the wave into the U.S. information storm,” Markov wrote.
Russia, where the political elite celebrated Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in November, has grown increasingly disillusioned of late with the new administration’s failure to deliver on Trump’s campaign pledges to “get along” with Moscow. A Facebook page named “Russians for Donald Trump” amended its name to add “R.I.P.,” after Trump ordered missile attacks on Russia’s ally, Syria, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
Putin and his aides have repeatedly denied allegations that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election in the United States through cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and the spread of disinformation.
At the same time, however, it has reaped great benefit from all the attention focused on Russia, even if most of it is negative. Accusations of Russian meddling have played into a domestic propaganda campaign that portrays all the country’s economic and other problems as a result of Russophobic foreigners intent on vilifying Russia. Moreover, the image of Moscow in the United States as a master manipulator has only reinforced Putin’s status as a supremely competent leader.
“Russian authorities are amused by the greatly exaggerated role attributed to Russia in the America’s internal political life,” Solovey said. “This is a very beneficial topic for the Russian propaganda machine.”