Trump and Putin have a lot in common, and Trump’s victory has
dashed the hopes of those Russians who believe in American democracy.
But the new American president-elect’s unpredictable personality
could also make for a stormy relationship.
Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, greeted the news of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election with applause. The parliamentary ovation will have confirmed the worst fears of his opponents about Russia’s agenda for a Trump presidency. But Russia’s enthusiasm also puts the U.S. president-elect on the spot, as Russians have unrealistic expectations of what a Trump presidency means.
The Russian and American elites have very different takes on Trump. In Russia, it’s not just the Kremlin, the Duma, and ordinary people. A number of educated individuals also sided with the next president of the United States, primarily because of their dislike of Hillary Clinton and their disapproval of her actions during the Arab Spring and the NATO intervention in Libya.
Many Russians also have less of a problem with comments which are perceived to be racist, viewing Trump’s politically incorrect pronouncements as a form of candor. In Russia, a person who shoots from the hip is seen as honest and courageous. Russians don’t put much stock in exercising self-restraint.
Trump has let it be known that he wants to treat foreign policy as a series of business transactions on behalf of the United States. The concept of foreign policy as a transactional process is much more attractive to Russian politicians than invocations of freedom, equality, and fraternity.
Those Americans who fail to understand Russia’s euphoria over Trump’s victory should realize that his victory looks different from outside their country’s borders than from the inside. A politician like Hillary Clinton who is considered a peace-loving Democrat in the United States may come across as a warmonger to foreign audiences.
Backing Trump, the current Russian regime is interested not in the Western elite, which will never be its friend, but in its own domestic public opinion. The Kremlin also looks to developing countries, many of which view Trump just as the Russians do: believing that the West is detached from reality and that Trump is a reality check.
So, by supporting Trump, Putin is making an appeal to those at home and abroad who want to see Russia at the forefront of a struggle against Western hegemony. Some may even give credit to Putin for making the victory happen.
Of course, there is another Russia, one that unequivocally supports its American intellectual counterparts. This Russia invested a lot of effort in promoting the message of Western democracy in Russia, which Trump is now undermining.
After Trump’s victory, this group now resembles the pious devotees in Dostoyevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” They expected that the body of the wise elder Father Zosima would be incorruptible, but instead watched with horror as it rapidly decomposed. Some of these Russians still cling to a faith in the Western democratic system, but their beliefs now look badly discredited.
Yet Trump’s victory also makes life hard for those Russians who criticized Western democracy. After all, the American people have made the “right” choice in defiance of their elite—a choice that the Russian people are not given the opportunity to make themselves. And that raises the question: if the United States is not going to be the enemy anymore, whom can Russia blame for its failures now?
In the end, no American may be good enough to win the support of all Russians. Russia likes Trump because he is an enemy of their enemy—the current U.S. administration—and that still leaves room for continued anti-American rhetoric and for future conflicts. The problem is set to continue as Trump makes key appointments from the ranks of the Republican Party, almost none of whom are sympathetic to Russia.
Yet Russia’s political leadership has grown tired of having to keep up an endless stream of anti-Western hatred. Trump’s victory is a good excuse for them to take a break and pause the overheating propaganda machine.
What does Trump's victory really mean for U.S.-Russia relations? Read The Moscow Times analysis on the future for Syria, NATO, and oil prices.
So much for Russia’s positive feelings about Trump. Why are the sentiments are reversed?
Trump’s unexpected pro-Russian statements in the election campaign won him no dividends in the United States. Any American knows that a politician has nothing to lose by attacking Russia. After all, ordinary Americans don’t care about the issue, there is no consolidated Russian ethnic vote in the U.S.—as there is for Cubans, Poles, or Greeks—and no large business interests. Praising Russia alienates intellectuals and East European diasporas. Attacking China is much more risky—and again Trump bucked that trend.
There are two basic reasons for Trump’s aberration—one personal and one public. On a personal level, Trump just doesn’t know how to retreat and instead sticks to his guns when under pressure. Being attacked for praising Putin made him want to praise the Russian leader even more.
Trump and Putin have very different personalities. Where Trump is beaming and boisterous, Putin is quiet and collected. But the two men also have a lot in common. Both are unhappy with the modern global order and the direction it is going. Both dislike domestic and global elites and despise political correctness. Finally, both of them are masters at crossing invisible red lines.
Yet the anticipated rapport between Putin and Trump may not work out as predicted. After all, many commentators said that the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom was inspired or supported by the Russian government. But the post-referendum British government has turned out to be just as harsh on Russia as its predecessor.
There is another dangerous scenario. Emboldened by the victory of its new supposed ally, there is a chance that Moscow will try something risky, something that it hasn’t done before. As U.S. president, Trump will be forced to respond, and the outcome will be very unpredictable.
Nothing about Trump has been predictable so far. Putin’s up-and-down relationship with Turkish leader Recep Erdogan presents a cautionary tale here. The men were the best friends, but underwent a stormy quarrel.
Future Russian-U.S. relations in the age of Trump are all too liable to mirror a tempestuous relationship of this sort.
Alexander Baunov is a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru.