Why Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in the White House is not hard to parse. Yes, Putin and Trump have exhibited a certain affinity for each other—Putin has called Trump a "very colorful, talented person," and Trump has returned the favor, declaring Putin "a leader, unlike what we have in this country"—and they share a political style that reveres strength, elevates cynicism to a virtue, and plays loose with the truth. But, for Putin and those around him, the best thing about Trump is simply that he is not Clinton.
In Clinton, Russian leaders see a potential President who would keep in place, or even strengthen, policies that have proved extraordinarily unwelcome in Moscow. Readers in America, where critics of President Obama's foreign policy have for years painted him as feckless and disengaged from the world, might be surprised to learn that in Russia he is caricatured as exactly the opposite: an expansive and reckless President who has not been shy about throwing U.S. might around in ways that have damaged Russian interests. Among Russian politicians, Obama has become the personification of a U.S. sanctions regime that has done real harm to the country's economy. Clinton is thought to be the next in line, and maybe worse.
The Kremlin sees "no reason to expect anything positive from a Clinton Presidency," Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and an influential thinker in Moscow on foreign policy, told me this week. As Putin and his allies understand it, Clinton is the standard-bearer of American liberal internationalism, a world view the Russians see as hubristic folly—the same school of thought that sought to remake Russia in its image in the nineteen-nineties, and that later, after those attempts failed, sought alternatively to punish Russia or to ostracize it from the international community. It doesn't help Clinton's image inside the Kremlin that she voiced support, however quietly, for anti-Putin protesters in late 2011, when she was serving as Secretary of State. For the country's ruling élite, Lukyanov said, the prospect of a Clinton Presidency carries the "spectre of unfinished business, this idea that Russia has to change somehow."
Given all this, Lukyanov told me, it is only logical that Trump generates more enthusiasm in Moscow's political circles. He is everything that Clinton is not: he speaks admirably of Putin, hints at lifting sanctions and recognizing Russia's claims in Crimea, and appears largely uninterested in defending Ukraine or the Baltic states from Russian interference or outright aggression. "The essence of his foreign policy is isolationism, a notion that the United States shouldn't always be getting involved in other people's business—let them decide," Lukyanov said. "It's what Russia has been saying all these years." When I spoke to Igor Korotchenko, the editor of National Defense magazine and a frequent bombastic guest on Russian state television, he put it even more bluntly. "Trump is appealing because he is not anti-Russian, not a Russophobe, not set on spiteful relations toward Russia," Korotchenko said.
A Trump Presidency might be appealing to Putin, but that doesn't mean that the two men are somehow plotting together—as some have alleged this week, after cybersecurity firms and U.S. intelligence agencies blamed Russian hackers for orchestrating the release of thousands of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. Those who make the argument about some kind of plot also point to Trump's recent comments questioning U.S. responsibilities in nato, and the Trump campaign's removal of language from the Republican Party platform about supplying arms to Ukraine. (It is worth remembering, though, that declining to supply Ukraine with offensive weaponry is the official policy of the Obama Administration.)
To imagine Putin engaging Trump in a covert alliance is to see the discipline and coherence of a master strategist where there is, most likely, the opportunism and appetite for risk of a high-stakes gambler. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Putin turned critic, explained how the Putin system comes to life "in moments of heightened and extraordinary situations." Sixteen years into his rule, Putin does not have "a regular regime, with a normally functioning bureaucracy and institutions—everything has an improvisational character," Pavlovsky said. In his view, Putin will happily make the most of whatever mess Trump makes, but he is not inclined to work on Trump's behalf. "If something happens somewhere, then great," Pavlovsky said. "But he is not going to do it himself. He's not Lenin or Trotsky—he's not going around starting revolutions, but he is going to use them."
Like many of Trump's supporters in America, Russian politicians and officials see the Republican candidate as a potential savior, one with the power to make a generation of grievances and setbacks disappear. Valery Garbuzov, the director of the Moscow-based Institute for the U.S.A. and Canada, a storied state research center that, in Soviet times, provided the intellectual arguments for détente, spoke to me about the "blind faith" that many Russian officials have placed in Trump. They believe that he will show up and act like "the savior for everything wrong in U.S.-Russian relations," Garbuzov said. On Wednesday, I talked with Andrei Klimov, a Russian senator and deputy head of the senate's foreign-affairs committee, who spoke about Trump in cautious, but positive, terms. "Americans should choose whomever they want," he told me. "If the next American President wants to reconfigure relations with Russia to make them more constructive, we are ready to meet him—or her—halfway."
What's missing from much of the speculation about Trump and Putin's relationship, and about the Trump boosterism in Moscow, is an acknowledgment that a Trump Presidency might not necessarily be a good thing for Russia. Trump is an unpredictable and hotheaded leader, under whom relations could easily sour or turn far more confrontational than they have been under Obama. Both Trump and Putin have created political personas based on strength, with each serving as avatars of national might and rebirth for their electorate. How could either one ever give in to the other? One could imagine a summit meeting between Trump and Putin going brilliantly—or flaming out so spectacularly that Trump calls for war planes the next day. Konstantin von Eggert, a political commentator who hosts a talk show on Dozhd, an independent Russian cable channel, told me that Russian officials think that with Trump as President, "no matter what happens, they win." But members of Russia's ruling class don't think about the long term. They worry only about maximizing advantage and outflanking rivals in the present; von Eggert warned that, today, they may "welcome Trump—but perhaps at their own peril."
Meanwhile, Trump himself is making explicit appeals to Russia. On Wednesday, Trump publicly called on Russia to locate the tens of thousands of e-mails that Clinton had deleted from her private server. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing," he said. Whether Trump was making a bad joke or a serious request for foreign espionage in the service of his campaign, Pavlovsky told me that Putin will consider the remarks "politically inappropriate," a sign of immaturity and lack of discipline, which are attributes that turn him off.
As my colleague Adrian Chen has pointed out, the narrative of Trump as an agent of Putin mirrors the maddening and conspiratorial mythmaking that lies beneath much of Russian political discussion, in which the hand of Washington is never far away. Russian politicians and officials regularly overstate both the reach and the influence of U.S. Presidents. (Putin once complained to George W. Bush that the United States was purposefully sending low-quality chickens to Russia.) A Russian parliamentary deputy I spoke with this week laughed at the American media's fascination with Trump as somehow doing Putin's bidding. "It's just like we do it," he said. "The explanation for why we have such bad roads is that it's all Obama's fault."
Covering Trump, American journalists and political analysts risk turning into their Russian counterparts and falling into a Moscow-style, labyrinthine parlor game, in which answering the question "Who benefits?" is considered a form of proof. In Moscow, the belief in conspiracies is a tempting salve for impotence and irresponsibility—forces beyond our control have already decided things, so what can we, as lowly citizens, do about them? But the real explanation for why Trump is on the verge of the Presidency can be found in the United States, not Russia. Putin can quietly cheer for Trump and even add some sideshows to this year's carnival election, but he can't himself deposit Trump in the White House. That's a job that Americans may do all on their own.
Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association aid and abet violence.
(Donald Trump и национальная ассоциация винтовки помогают и подстрекают расправу.)
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