The Buzz

The Real Russian Interest in US Elections

As allegations of a “Russian hand” behind the release of DNC emails gain momentum, Putin’s incentive to boost Trump is increasingly viewed as beyond question. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any effort to look at the v the discourse about US presidential elections that has been evolving in Russia--long before the DNC scandal. The truth is that Russia’s perceptions about Trump and Clinton are much more nuanced than often portrayed.

One of the first impressions of the campaign the Russians had – especially during the party debates – was the element of a theatricality with a lot of focus on the form and much less on substance. Understandably, attention to issues of domestic policies outside a cohort of professional Russian America-experts was minimal – if any. On the foreign policy front, however, most candidates left the impression of being extremely ignorant, including on daunting security issues. The most disturbing part is that virtually none of them offered a comprehensive foreign policy program rather a continuous repetition of well-known mantras of American “leadership”. All of the forecasts of American foreign policy in Russia thus had to be based either upon a previous foreign policy record and experience – as in case of Hillary Clinton – or merely on assumptions and even speculations – as in the case of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump came to be perceived in Washington and most of the mainstream Western media as “the Kremlin candidate”. It’s primarily based on Trump’s complimentary remarks vis-à-vis President Putin, exaggerated ties of some of his aides to Moscow, as well as his support for Russian actions in Syria and the seeming eagerness to let American allies in Europe pool themselves up by their own bootstraps. What further fuels this argument is that the Russian media has long swooned over Donald’s “witticisms”. His flamboyant personality is appealing and is frequently likened to – rather erroneously – to Vladimir Zhirinovsky a notorious leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and remains a popular politician in Russia. Another argument to support the alleged affection between Trump and Putin is the parallel drawn between Trump – with his farceur character – and Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – one of Putin’s best international bosom pals.

Clearly, Russians have a different perception about what constitutes American values and “public rules”. This vision is born out of their own distinct history and the entirely different social and political experience. The notion of “political correctness” is viewed by many Russians as a sign of the “fakeness” and “insincerity” of the Western culture. Social taboos that exist in the US are perceived as largely artificial and self-imposed. Therefore, ordinary Russian citizens look at Trump through a different lens than his opponents in the US. For the Russians here is a man who unafraid to speak his mind freely; someone openly challenging a political system they themselves believe is imperfect. For that matter, another “trouble stirrer-up” of this race-- Bernie Sanders--was equally likeable: both Trump and Sanders each in their own way buffeted a system that was in dire need of one. Very often descriptions of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were lumped together in the Russian discourse. Russians pay attention to Trump without always fully realizing why some Americans fear him – but understanding even less why many Americans still vote for him.

This is not necessarily how Trump is perceived by the expert community and decision-makers in Russia. As in the US, Trump hasn’t long been taken seriously by most of Russian political observers. Many still refuse to believe in the ultimate success of “the Trump phenomenon” even after his party nomination. There’s little hope in Moscow that Trump can indeed deliver on at least half of what he is promising. Likewise, there’s no illusion that should he try to push foreign policy proposals that are now driving many in Washington mad. The fact is that he would encounter a powerful bipartisan opposition as well as political sabotage by legislative and executive bodies. These developments alone would seriously hamper his capabilities to drastically alter the strategic course of the United States.

Besides, with Trump, “unpredictability” – a trait Moscow itself is frequently criticized for in the West – renders him bad services. Despite Vladimir Putin’s occasional praise of Trump there’s little trust in the Republican front-runner as a credible partner in Moscow at the moment. Moreover, the superficial understanding of the contemporary nature of US-Russia relations that both Trump and his advisers demonstrate push him to a “series of personal deals” with Putin as a perceived guarantee of quick restoration of the relationship. In case Trump fails to achieve quick results through this approach, he may easily convert his conciliatory rhetoric towards Moscow to the one he advanced vis-à-vis China, Mexico or Muslim migrants. That said, the arsenal of his swashbuckling behavior--some of which is now amusing many in Russia--may at the end of the day be turned against Moscow – with the significant difference that it will then be President Trump with administrative, political and military resources of a global superpower at his disposal. Policy-makers in Russia are well aware of this. Hence they express more cautious expectations regarding this potential presidency.