By Paul Goble
During the Republican primaries, Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have praised Donald Trump as someone they understood and could do business with given that they have viewed the New York billionaire as part and parcel of the nationalist-populist wave that the Kremlin has long promoted in Western Europe.
But now that Trump has become the candidate presumptive in the general election, some Russian commentators are suggesting that Putin has misread the situation, that Trump could be an even bigger problem for him and Moscow than the presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and that the Kremlin should rethink its position.
In a comment for Deutsche Welle, Moscow commentator Igor Eidman suggests that the Kremlin should rethink its position given that in his view neither Trump nor right-wing populists will help Russia escape from its current international isolation (dw.com/ru/комментарий-поможет-ли-путину-трамп/a-19233582).
Others like Vitaly Portnikov are even blunter. The Kyiv commentator says that Moscow should recognize that if Trump were to become president, Russia would become “a victim of confrontation” with the US far more quickly than if Clinton won and that Putin just as certainly would end in the jail cell in the Hague (charter97.org/ru/news/2016/5/5/202867/).
The Putin elite both “fears isolation” but “doesn’t want to comply with the cultural and legal norms adopted in the Western world,” Eidman says. That leaves Moscow with only one choice: “change the West” and that is what Putin has decided to try to do, viewing the situation there as “favoring” such an outcome.
“The humanist and tolerant political culture” of most Western countries “is going through a crisis. The right-wing populist wave in Western countries has much in common with Putinism, including breaking out of the framework of the liberal political tradition and demonstrative violation of the unwritten rules of political correctness,” the Moscow commentator says
Those in the West who shared such Putinist values were until very recently “political marginals,” Eidman continues, but now they are competing “for the highest state posts, ranging from the Austria Hofer to the American Trump.
“The policy of the Russian authorities has contributed to the growth of the popularity of these forces,” he says, because “the violation by Russia in the Crimean and Donbass conflicts of international legal norms shows the Western voter that in the contemporary world as was the case 100 years ago, the powerful are always right.”
That means that such voters need to choose “’strong personalities’ who can defend them from the side of ‘the aliens.’ The Kremlin shows the seductive example of a return to the ‘Hottentot’ political morality – it is good when I eat my neighbor and bad when my neighbor eats me, to nationalism, leadership cults, and the cult of force in politics.”
According to Eidman, “in a world where there is a President Putin, candidate Trump has greater chances for success.” And Moscow is “actively trying to use the right-wing populist wave” to bend the world to its will; and “the Kremlin apparently dreams of a world where [such leaders] would agree with Chinese about dividng the planet into spheres of influence.”
“It is not accidental,” the Moscow commentator says, “that Putin and Trump pay each other compliments. Much brings them together” given that “the typical Trump supporter is a far from young white male without a higher education and average or below average income” and who expresses his dissatisfaction against “racial minorities and immigrants.”
“Similar views predominate also among Putin supporters,” Eidman says. The only difference is that in Russia “they are spread throughout all strata of society,” with a majority of Russians supporting the slogan “’Russia for the Russians’” and “only a quarter” saying that there should not be introduced restrictions on non-Russians.
But Eidman argues, Trump won’t help Putin, and he won’t do so precisely because the two are so alike: both like to act randomly and to use force to show how powerful they are. “The liberal Obama is far from such plans, but Trump if he comes to power could make a reality the most terrible nightmares of the Russian president.”
Given how a President Trump would likely respond to Putin’s aggressive moves, it is entirely likely, the Moscow commentator says, that he would be quite prepared to compete with the Kremlin leader in military and patriotic “games” to show “who in the world is the real master.” Given Russia’s fundamental weakness, Russia and Putin would inevitably suffer.
Portnikov in a comment for Espreso.TV gives an even bleaker assessment of what a Trump presidency would mean for Putin. While Moscow welcomed Trump’s suggestion that he wants to find “a common language” with the Kremlin leader, it can’t possibly be pleased by Trump’s assertion that the US must deal with Russia from a position of strength.
From what Trump has said about shooting down Russian warplanes that buzz American ships, it is clear that in the Republican leader’s view, “’if Putin wants to behave like a hooligan, it is necessary to punish him, harshly and convincingly … For Obama, relations with Putin are based on appeasement and a calculation that the Russian regime will collapse.”
“For Trump,” on the other hand, Portnikov says, his calculations are based on “punishment and a calculation that the Russian regime will collapse. The end for Putin and his entourage will be the same in both cases – a cell in the Hague.” But this end will come more quickly and painfully if Trump were to become president.