The Russian president has shown warmth for the Republican nominee, and some fear a nefarious plot – but the ‘hysteria and paranoia’ may not be justified
Acolourful and talented man” was how Vladimir Putin described Donald Trump back in December. In June, he went further: “Mr Trump has declared that he’s ready for the full restoration of Russian-American relations. Is there anything bad there? We all welcome this, don’t you?”
These are the only comments Putin has made on Trump, but nevertheless, Trump’s potential Russia links have become one of the biggest stories of the election campaign, as the media investigates everything from his dubious business links in Russia, to his campaign manager’s links to Russian and Ukrainian cashflows, to the Gazprom links and Kremlin-friendly ideology of one of his campaign advisers.
Some have even gone as far as to insinuate that Trump could be a Russian agent, sent to implement the Kremlin’s nefarious plans.
So, is Putin hatching a cunning plan to put Trump in the White House? The apparent hacking of Democratic party emails by Russian hackers might suggest so. There certainly has been what appears to be coordinated chatter among pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, ranging from low-level spammers to Alexey Pushkov, one of Russia’s top foreign policy officials, who has been surprisingly forthright about his admiration for Trump.
But Kremlin watchers say the picture may be more nuanced. In Moscow, there is sniggering at the idea of Trump as a Manchurian candidate.
“It’s been amazing to see that hysteria and paranoia about external interference is not just a Russian thing,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst who advised the Kremlin until 2011.
A source close to the Kremlin said: “I think Putin has conflicted feelings about Trump ... Of course, he says nice things about Russia. But Hillary is more predictable. With Trump, who knows what would happen?”
The potential appeal of Trump is his willingness to dismiss “political correctness”, and work outside the rules. While Trump’s fiery rhetoric has alarmed many world leaders, Pushkov has hailed it as “common sense”. Putin believes all world leaders are cynical, merely cloaking their cynicism with high-minded rhetoric about democracy and human rights – and at least Trump does not attempt to hide his contempt for convention and willingness to flout established norms.
“I think Putin probably likes Trump from an aesthetic point of view,” said Valery Garbuzov, director of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, a government-linked thinktank set up in 1967 to give the Soviet leadership analysis and advice on how to deal with the US. “But he should be aware that the reality could be very different.”
Putin’s attitude toward Trump is bound up in his thoughts about US power in general, as well as a personal dislike for Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
Putin came to power in 2000 determined to restore Russia’s position as a “first-tier nation” and have its voice respected in the international arena. During the 1990s, a weak, ailing Russia had been unable to influence events internationally.
In 1998, when Bill Clinton called Boris Yeltsin to tell him the US was considering airstrikes on Serbia, Yeltsin was furious, recounted Clinton’s Russia advisor Strobe Talbott in his memoirs. He screamed “Nelzya!” – a strong Russian imperative which means something like “it is impermissible!” – several times down the phone at the US president and then hung up. The airstrikes went ahead, of course.
Putin was determined that under his presidency, Russia’s objections were going to be taken into account.
Years later, when his officials said Ukraine turning towards the west and signing a trade agreement with the EU was also Nelzya, Putin was willing to do what Yeltsin could not: back his words up with brute force. After pro-European protests led former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee, Putin moved to annex Crimea.
During the early part of his rule, though, he thought he could attain this seat at the table by becoming friends with the Americans.
“He started off thinking we could work with them – we just needed them to understand Russia better. He genuinely believed that one day Russia might even join Nato; it didn’t seem ridiculous then,” said the source close to the Kremlin.
There were a number of episodes that changed Putin’s mind about American intentions. First came his belief that the US was funding Chechen fighters through American embassies in the South Caucasus. Then came the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which Putin believed was directed by US operatives. As the years went by, Putin became more convinced that the US was an enemy, and that it had designs of regime change in the Kremlin.
“He has certain assumptions about American power that are locked in, and we struggled mightily trying to convince him that that’s not what we do,” said Michael McFaul, formerly US ambassador to Russia. Putin assigned the Americans all kinds of agency in Russia and genuinely believed the ultimate policy to be regime change, McFaul recalled.
“He’d accuse us of things, and Obama would say to him: ‘We’re not doing that,’ and he’d look Obama in the eye and say ‘Yes, you are. We know.’ I was never sure if he really believed this stuff or not, but I came to the conclusion he did.”
Pavlosky said Putin has become bored with the day-to-day decision-making involved in running the country, and is much more interested in foreign policy. “Foreign policy has also become very personal now. He sees himself as the personification of the country. He genuinely thinks the US is trying to overthrow him,” he said.
Putin has made this claim explicitly on occasion. When mass protests broke out in Russia over falsified elections in 2011, he claimed the Russian protesters were acting according to a signal from the US state department, then run by Hillary Clinton.
“[Opposition leaders] heard the signal and, with the support of the US state department, began active work,” Putin said at the time. “We are all grownups here. We all understand the organisers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.”
It was not the first time Putin had tough words for Clinton. During her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton said Putin “doesn’t have a soul”, referencing George W Bush’s claim that he looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul”.
Putin shot back: “As a minimum, a head of state should have a head.”
Those who know Putin say he is unlikely to forget the spat.
“In the US, politics is like a sport: you say all kinds of horrible things and then you’re friends again, like Obama and Clinton in 2008,” said the source close to the Kremlin. “In Russia it’s not like that; there’s no culture of throwing insults around and then making up. Putin is a pragmatist. He will work with whomever he needs to. But of course, he will remember forever the things Hillary said.”
Whether or not Putin is rooting for a Trump presidency, some doubt that having the controversial tycoon in the White House would really be good for Russia.
“That’s an incredibly simplistic view; it’s the view of propagandists, not analysts,” said Garbuzov. Analysts from his institute sit on various advisory boards to the foreign and defence ministries, but Garbuzov admits he does not know how much weight their more nuanced views on the US hold.
“We can’t exclude that if Hillary wins, Russia and the US could end up having productive dialogue in a number of areas, and likewise if Trump wins, there could be total chaos. It’s clear that she’s anti-Russian, but she is an experienced politician who understands the world. He has no experience at all of politics; he’s a demagogue and a populist.”
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