Originally published on my old website danielleryan.net and at Johnson’s Russia List, July 30, 2016.
The answer to the above question seems a foregone conclusion across American media. The brewing Trump-Putin ‘bromance’ is now a well-established trope. Trump loves Putin and Putin loves Trump.
I’ve been skeptical of this narrative from the beginning. It’s not necessarily that I don’t believe Trump when he says he wants improved relations with Russia, but I worry about how this all pans out in reality.
I wrote a column for RT almost a year ago questioning whether Trump’s Russia-friendly rhetoric would follow through into the White House were he to win the presidency. I looked at Trump’s brief history of relevant statements on Russia and I wrote about the flip-floppy nature of his comments.
I’m going to break this down into two questions: 1. Would Trump really be good for Russia, and 2. Does the Kremlin really want him in the White House? I have answers for neither, just some thoughts.
1. Would Trump really be good for Russia?
While many were opining last year about the burgeoning bromance, I was wondering why journalists had forgotten that while in 2015 Trump may have been questioning the need for US involvement in Ukraine, in 2014 he had been calling for a more forceful intervention from Obama and arguing that the US should “definitely do sanctions” against Russia.
I was wondering what exactly he meant when he suggested that sanctions could be lifted if Russia decided to “behave” itself. I was wondering what he envisioned when he said he’d get along “very well” with Putin, but that the relationship would be such that “we” — the US — “have the strength”. I was wondering how exactly anyone thought it would pan out that Trump would click his fingers and Putin would send Edward Snowden packing. I was wondering how any of this turned into a party for the Kremlin, which is how many in mainstream media were portraying it.
Then, over the past six months or so, Trump’s comments became more Russia-friendly than ever and he hasn’t yet appeared to completely backtrack on any of them. So enamored has he been of Putin, that I questioned myself and my earlier column and began to consider that he really might have developed a sincere set of beliefs with regard to Russia.
He has questioned the usefulness of NATO, suggested economic sanctions could be lifted and has even seemed open to recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. He appears to believe an issue like Crimea should have no relevance to the US and that it is a waste of time getting riled up over what is essentially “Europe’s problem”.
No doubt his skepticism of NATO and willingness to reexamine sanctions and the Crimea issue have gone down well in the Kremlin — particularly when compared to Hillary Clinton’s view. She has been incredibly aggressive in her rhetoric toward Russia and toward Putin himself, even comparing him to Hitler. Their relationship has drifted into personal insults territory on more than one occasion.
In terms of the personal relationship between Trump and Putin, there isn’t much of one to speak of. Trump has made contradictory statements as to whether they’ve ever met and so far their relationship has been restricted to some light pleasantries sent through the airwaves.
It started when Trump said he thought he’d get along nicely with Putin. That set the media off on the Trump-Putin narrative, spawning op-eds galore about how the two men share similar personalities — something I also disagree with (and will get to later).
Putin eventually responded, calling Trump something to the effect of “flamboyant” or “bright” and said he would welcome any attempt to improve relations with Washington. Somehow between Putin’s lips and journalists keyboards, “bright” turned into “genius” and websites like ABC began propagating the myth of Putin’s “resounding praise” for Trump. There was no stopping the propaganda juggernaut from there. Before we knew it, in the eyes of the media and his opponents, Trump had become a full-fledged Kremlin agent. The latest outlet for their deeply ingrained McCarthyist tendencies.
For his part, Trump has become incredibly proud of the fact that Putin called him a genius — even though he didn’t. He has referenced it on many occasions, each time sounding more and more like a fawning fanboy of the Russian leader.
All this and I’m still skeptical.
I’ve thought about this a lot and it comes down to matters of personality. Serious efforts have been made to cast the two men as cut from the same cloth. In reality, they come from vastly different backgrounds and perspectives — and they operate in completely different worlds. They do share a cynicism about the world which may indeed help them find some common ground on certain issues, but that is about it.
Putin is a calculated thinker from a modest background. Trump is for all intents a purposes a complete, born-rich narcissist. He was not accustomed to hearing the word “no” at any point in his life. He is prone to hyperbole and speaking without thinking — because for him, there are rarely consequences. He is not interested in the minutiae of policy or the reeling off of historical facts to bolster a deeply held belief about how the world is or should be. He has spent his life thinking there’s nothing money can’t buy and no deal he can’t make. He is not tied to any particular political or moral principles and doesn’t think he needs to be. One day he may lambaste NATO and on the next he may just as readily sing its praises.
He is untrustworthy, as most politicians are, but the difference is, he doesn’t really care if you know it. At no point in his campaign has he attempted to present himself in the ‘holier than thou’ light that the American electorate is accustomed to — hence his huge following of die-hard fans who profess to be tired of the political correctness that he proudly disregards.
But all of this makes him a loose cannon, which Putin is not. Trump might think he is getting along wonderfully with Putin in the early stages, but what happens when they come to an impasse? What happens when Trump realizes geopolitics doesn’t work like a reality TV show? What happens when Trump is faced with the reality of steering American foreign policy? What’s he going to do then? Tell Putin’s he’s fired?
Two options. Option one: Trump genuinely doesn’t care enough about anything to prevent him from making a deal, in which case, they have a wonderful relationship of mutual respect and deal-making for the duration of Trump’s term. Option two: Trump begins to feel as though Putin is getting one over on him and, embarrassed by his previous professions of love for the Russian, decides to take a harder line. Putin pushes back and the result is a quick but very dangerous souring of the relationship.
When you consider some of the incredibly hawkish sentiments Trump has expressed in the past, it’s not difficult to see how a Trump vs. Putin showdown could turn ugly very quickly.
His surprising distaste for the usual ‘American exceptionalism’ rhetoric has admittedly been refreshing, but can it be trusted?
Despite repeated overtures toward Russia, Trump is still obsessed with the idea that Obama’s foreign policy has made America weak and he is primarily concerned with American strength and global dominance. In fact, part of his infatuation with Putin is that he regards him as a strong take-shit-from-no-one kind of guy. How that works when they face off against each other no one knows.
Listening to Trump in recent weeks he comes across as very isolationist; we don’t need to waste money on wars that don’t help us, we don’t need to worry about nations like Estonia that are essentially inconsequential to us etc.
That’s all well and good, but what happens when President Trump makes the calculation that he does in fact need to put his military to good use? And let’s face it, they all do at some point. This is a man who suggested in 2013 that the US should take Iraq’s oil as payback for the time they wasted there (“I say we should take Iraq’s oil and pay ourselves back”). He has a remarkable preoccupation with oil.
He has been for the Iraq war, he has been against the Iraq war. He has been for intervention in Libya, he has been against intervention in Libya (“I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested”). He’s a huge fan of torture and war crimes (we need something “much worse” than waterboarding and if it doesn’t work, they “deserve it anyway”). He has also proposed killing the families of terrorists (“you have to take out their families”).
But he has never actually held office. He has no real track record. Is his status as the unknown entity in this election really good for the Kremlin? It’s impossible to tell.
2. Does the Kremlin want Trump?
Contrary to what many now believe, the Kremlin isn’t inclined towards throwing a big party every time something happens in the world that columnists for Western newspapers have decided might be, God forbid, good for Russia. Most events come with their own set of pros and cons and are weighed up in light of them. Putin does far less “delighting” over international events than Western headlines would lead us to believe.
On the surface, yes, Trump presents Russia with the potential for the kind of US-Russian relationship that Putin has only ever dreamed about. The things he has said on sanctions, Crimea, NATO etc. are almost unbelievable coming from the mouth of an American presidential nominee. If Putin did favor Trump, based purely on his recent comments, it would be perfectly understandable.
But the Kremlin is also well aware of all the other facets of Trump’s personality, the entire history of his comments — not just the ones from yesterday or last week. They are fully aware that the blossoming of a beautiful friendship is hardly a foregone conclusion if Trump wins. They are not that stupid. Not to mention the fact that they know even if Trump is being entirely sincere about improving relations, he may not even be able to follow through on it all, given the inevitable push back he would face in Washington.
Meanwhile, Hillary is the known entity. She may be aggressive in her anti-Russia posturing, but they know what they’re getting with her. Her foreign policy is a matter of record. It’s not based on a few comments here and there over the past year. They know she is an American exceptionalism devotee and highly ideological in a way that Trump is not. They may feel that with her they will simply get more of the same, but at least it’s what they’re used to. They certainly won’t welcome her with open arms and high hopes, but I’m pretty sure there are at least some in Moscow who think the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
But, as with Trump, there’s also a major personality conflict to consider with Hillary. Her status as the first female US president may well instill within her a strong desire to be regarded as just as tough as any man, to not to be viewed as cowing to a leader she regards as a ruthless dictator — while Putin will not take kindly to being pushed around or lectured to by Hillary Clinton. It could get intensely personal between these two — and no one needs a battle of the sexes as the icing on the new Cold War cake.
There’s obviously no way to tell how any of this pans out, but I do believe the Trump-Putin bromance card is seriously overplayed and the reasons for it are transparent and desperate. Hillary is the media’s candidate. Anything they can use to tarnish Trump will do, and if they can use their favorite smear of ‘Kremlin agent’, all the better.
What worries me more is not that they are cleverly, calculatingly using Trump’s Russia comments against him in a concerted effort to hurt his candidacy and help their horse in the race. What worries me is that the vast majority of American pundits and analysts are dangerously one dimensional in their thinking. That they actually believe their own propaganda. That they have become so ideological and stuck on this theme in their heads that they actual think Trump could be a secret Kremlin agent. That they don’t see the nuance in anything. That they really see the world in black and white, only good countries and bad countries. That they believe that what’s good for Russia must be bad for America, and vice versa, and that geopolitics should be a zero-sum game.
That kind of mentality, unquestioned and legitimised by the people who are supposed to challenge it most, is more dangerous than Trump and Hillary combined.