Early in the primary season, Putin spoke out in favor of Donald Trump. He seemed to be responding to Trump’s stated remarks praising Putin. But it still struck me as odd that the Russian President would bother to remark on the American presidential campaign before the Parties had even selected their candidates. During the Cold War, a Russian President’s endorsement would have been the kiss of death for a candidate. So why would Putin speak out in favor of Trump? Was he seriously impressed with Trump’s credentials, as he indicated? Or did he have a subversive or other ulterior motive? Well, I did a little research and have discovered a few correlations that may hint at his motives. Of course, I have no way of knowing what is in Putin’s mind. But, still, I thought it useful to share the following:
➣ Maybe Putin sees Trump as somebody he can understand. Both are nationalist and use populist rhetoric to gain support of their followers. They both seem caught up in nostalgia for the past whether in Putin’s commitment to restoring the Soviet empire or in Trump’s avowed dedication to “making America great again.”
➣Putin might also infer some like mindedness between him and Trump in their professional associates and in their reaction to demonstrators. Paul Manafort, Trump’s political strategist, performed the same role a little more than two years ago for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president that Putin controlled and protected. Although I have no reason to impugn Manafort’s involvement in the political repression of Ukrainians, his political involvement with both Yanukovych and Trump could be interpreted by Putin in Trump’s favor. Putin also shares Trump’s distaste for political opposition. His government threatened to withdraw financial aid to Yanukovych unless he suppressed protests. In February of 2014, Yanukovych ordered the mass shooting of protesters, thereby spurring a revolution, his own exile in Russia, and Putin’s invasion of Crimea. Trump certainly shares Putin’s distain for protesters and likewise disregards the possibility of any violent consequences.
➣Putin’s desire to form a Eurasian alternative to the European Union would be abetted by Trump’s stated intent to withdraw from NATO. The only entity in Europe that is committed to protecting state borders since World War II is NATO. Russia under Putin is provocatively testing those borders in his quest to form a counterweight to the EU. Trump’s interest in freeing America from European “free-loaders” goes far beyond President Obama’s insistence that NATO countries devote two percent of their state budgets to mutual defense. Trump is threatening to remove the American safety net altogether—a policy proposal that has already shaken our allies but that must warm the heart of Putin.
➣Trump’s perspective that America has failed, that the government is led by “losers” and “incompetents,” fits nicely into Putin’s view that the West is corrupt and a foil for his type of authoritarianism. Although Putin might like Trump’s analysis of America’s state of the union, he likely is more interested in what a Trump presidency would mean for Russia. In fact, the Kremlin seems to believe Trump’s erratic foreign policy initiatives might benefit Russia. According to the television producer and writer Peter Pomerantsev, the Russian elite are convinced that Trump will destroy US power (reference “Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” Public Affairs, p. 241).
➣ Besides, Putin really does not like Hillary Clinton. He accused her during her last state visit as Secretary of State of stirring up trouble amongst Muscovites and his opposition in Parliament over alleged rigged elections. After she left Moscow, he had the opposition leaders arrested.
So why does Putin favor Trump? Why does he insert himself in American politics? What has emboldened him to do so?
If we know anything at all about Putin, we must recognize that he is reliving, even recklessly reviving, the Cold War. Diplomacy for him is a zero sum game that he feels Russia must play against the West and specifically against the United States. When President Obama pulled Putin aside at the G20 Summit and told him “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike” (reference, Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016 issue), Putin agreed with the President’s proposal , but not out of any conciliatory or humanitarian initiative. It is likely he saw his own interests served. Perhaps he wanted to forestall the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Many Islamic Chechens who violently oppose Moscow are fighting with Daesh in Syria. But it would be naïve to overlook his likely intent to undercut our President in his ongoing tryst with political opponents at home. Republicans immediately highlighted the President’s weakness vis-à-vis Assad and Putin. The appearance of being upstaged by Putin played very well in the Kremlin, in the US media, and in Europe. This is the result, I believe, that Putin sought, especially in its effect on American allies whose trust in the American President’s “redline” was shaken.
There was a time in American politics when political adversaries in America always agreed on supporting the Presidency against any form of foreign aggression, including diplomatic. That time has passed. Some Republicans in Congress have unwittingly, or perhaps unconscientiously, aligned themselves with our diplomatic foes. It would have been unimaginable for any Republican to align with Khrushchev during the Kennedy administration or with Brezhnev or Andropov during the Reagan administration. Yet we hear the President’s political opponents praising Putin as a statesman who outwits the Administration’s foreign policy at every turn. What was unimaginable is now reality: the Kremlin is now emboldened to insert itself into American politics. A former KGB operative, a Cold War antagonist, can now openly favor a candidate for the American Presidency.
Whatever interest the Kremlin has in Trump and whatever Putin hopes to accomplish by publically commending him, we can be sure of one thing—his interests are not ours.