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Banner image: Putin photo courtesy of the Kremlin; Trump photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia

Russia and Donald Trump

Jonathan Eyal
Commentary, 10 November 2016
United States, Americas, Russia, Global Security Issues, Europe
President Vladimir Putin’s interference in the US election appears to have succeeded in at least heaping ridicule on its electoral system. But that does not mean that President-elect Donald Trump is beholden to Moscow, or that Russia has acquired an ally in the White House.

 ‘Today I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window’, tweeted Margarita Simonyan, the boss of RT, Russia’s state-funded propaganda television news trumpet. That’s not because Simonyan has suddenly concluded that the US is Russia’s friend; there has been no diminution in her channel’s output of anti-American material, in which facts are rare, and fiction is king. Rather, it is because Russia’s chief propagandist, as well as many of the country’s top political leadership, are elated by Donald Trump’s election as US president, a feat which they partly ascribe to Moscow’s own ingenuity.

The involvement of Russia’s intelligence services in the hacking and theft of emails from the computer servers of the Democratic Party and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign officials with the explicit aim of helping Trump’s electoral campaign is no longer in doubt. But it is worth recalling that although Russia’s interference in the US election has been particularly brazen, Moscow has dabbled in the internal politics of other countries for almost a century.

During the Cold War, the Kremlin exported revolution and infiltrated every left-wing party in the West.  And even after the Cold War had ended, the practice continued. In areas Russia regards as its spheres of influence – Central Asia, the Caucasus and, until recently, Ukraine – Moscow continues to pick or promote politicians it either trusts or believes it can influence.

But even in the West, the Russians are fairly brazen. Sometimes they offer cash to political parties that seek to overthrow the existing political order, while on other occasions they offer soft loans. For example, France’s far-right National Front obtained an €11 million loan from a Russian bank, a transaction that would have been unthinkable without Moscow’s support.

As a rule, the Russian objective is not necessarily to install a pro-Russian government in a Western country but, rather, just to destroy the careers of politicians Moscow identifies as too dangerous. 

This is invariably done through a well-rehearsed strategy Russians refer to as kompromat, the careful assembly of compromising information about people Moscow wants marginalised. The information is usually released at a moment calculated to inflict maximum damage. The hacking of the US computer systems is, therefore, precisely the sort of activity Russia has been doing for years in many European countries. And the purpose in the case of the US hacking was the same as in Europe: to obtain material harming Clinton’s career.

That does not mean that Trump is himself a Russian agent, a reincarnated ‘Manchurian Candidate’, the fictional character of a 1960s movie who is brainwashed by Russian spies to take over the US. Indeed, there is no evidence that Trump has even met Putin, let alone established any professional or financial links with Moscow. Trump’s affection for the Russian president is partly due to his admiration for anyone who appears to be strong and decisive, and partly the result of his determination to reject the received wisdom of decades of American diplomacy.

It is probable that, just as with most of the rest of the world, Putin suspected that Trump’s chances of being elected US president were slim. He must also have weighed the possibility that lending Trump such a public helping hand could rebound on Russia should Clinton win the White House. Still, Putin stuck with Trump because he calculated that, even if he lost his bet on the Republican candidate, Russia would have succeeded in another objective: that of heaping ridicule and even discrediting the American political system.

Revelations of back-stabbing in the Democratic Party and of Clinton promising donors one thing while offering voters another both served as perfect examples for what Putin has argued all along: that the US political system is as corrupt as that of other countries, that US democracy is a sham and that America has no business telling others how to fix their politics. That, and not necessarily the election of Trump, was the key Russian objective.

Having said that, the election is regarded in Moscow as tantamount to hitting the jackpot. For, as far as Putin is concerned, there are three advantages to having Trump in the White House. First, Trump’s election creates difficulties in trans-Atlantic relations, a boon for Russia. Second, Trump’s questioning of the purpose and viability of NATO, and the doubts this is certain to generate among America’s European allies is music to Putin’s ears. Finally, and the most important advantage from Russia’s perspective, is that Trump seems to be approaching Europe as a transactional relationship.

Trump is the first president since 1947 to see the trans-Atlantic link as just a meeting of separate commercial transactions rather than an alliance of values. Putin loves this approach for, like Trump, he sees Europe as a real estate proposition, as a matter of just dividing lands between proprietors, between spheres of influence. There is no concrete evidence that real estate mogul Trump will be tempted even to discuss a deal to divide Europe. Yet the mere fact that this is even a remote possibility is tantalising to Moscow.

Nevertheless, Putin and his advisers are keeping their cool and not making big plans about a long-term ‘reset’ in their relations with Washington. One reason for this is that Moscow has no clue about the composition of Trump’s presidential team, so it does not know what to make of the incoming administration. Another reason is that Russia hates unpredictability, and Trump seems to be offering this in spades. So, analysts in Moscow are divided in their expectations, with some – such as Dmitri Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow – pointing out that it is by no means a given that Trump will be favourable to Moscow.

Still, there is no doubt that, at least for the moment, Putin feels satisfied: he has cocked another snook at the Americans, and appears to have emerged as the victor.

Author

Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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