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
A colourful and talented man was how Vladimir Putin described Donald Trump back in December. In June, he went further: Mr Trump has declared that hes ready for the full restoration of Russian-American relations. Is there anything bad there? We all welcome this, dont you?
These are the only remarks Putin has constructed on Trump, but however, Trumps potential Russia links have become one of the biggest stories of the election campaign, as the media analyses everything from his dubious business links in Russia, to his campaign managers connect to Russian and Ukrainian cashflows, to the Gazprom connections and Kremlin-friendly ideology of one of his campaign advisers.
Some have even run as far as to insinuate that Trump could be a Russian agent, sent to implement the Kremlins 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 Russias 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, here i am sniggering at the idea of Trump as a Manchurian candidate.
Its 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 believe 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 reject political correctness, and work outside the rules. While Trumps fiery rhetoric has alarmed many world leaders, Pushkov has hailed it as common sense. Putin believes all world leaders are cynical, merely shawl 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 suppose 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 were established 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.
Putins attitude toward Trump is bound up in his thoughts about US power in general, as well as a personal detest for Trumps rival, Hillary Clinton.
Putin came to power in 2000 determined to restore Russias position as a first-tier nation and have its voice respected in the international arena. During the 1990 s, 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 Clintons Russia advisor Strobe Talbott in his memoir. 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, Russias objections were going to be taken into account.
Years subsequently, 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 resulted 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 required them to understand Russia better. He genuinely believed that one day Russia might even join Nato; it didnt seem ridiculous then, said the source close to the Kremlin.
There were a number of episodes that changed Putins mind about American intentions. First came his notion 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 spies. 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 fought mightily trying to convince him that thats not what we do, said Michael McFaul, formerly US ambassador to Russia. Putin designated the Americans all kinds of agency in Russia and genuinely believed the ultimate policy to be regime change, McFaul remembered.
Hed accuse us of things, and Obama would say to him: Were not doing that, and hed looking 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 with the day-to-day decision-making to participate in running the country, and is much more interested in foreign policy. Foreign policy has also become very personal now. He assures himself as the personification of the country. He genuinely guesses the US is trying to overthrow him, he said.
Putin has made this claim explicitly on occasion. When mass protests have broken 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 terms for Clinton. During her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton said Putin doesnt have a soul, referencing George W Bushs claim that he looked into Putins 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 youre friends again, like Obama and Clinton in 2008, said the source close to the Kremlin. In Russia its not like that; theres 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.
Thats an unbelievably simplistic position; its the view of propagandists , not analysts, said Garbuzov. Analysts from his institute sit on various advisory board to the foreign and defence ministries, but Garbuzov admits he does not know how much weight their more nuanced opinions on the US hold.
We cant omit that if Hillary wins, Russia and the US could end up having productive dialogue in a number of areas, and similarly if Trump wins, there could be total chaos. Its clear that shes anti-Russian, but she is an experienced politician who understands the world. He has no experience at all of politics; hes a demagogue and a populist.
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