Putin And Trump: The View From Russia

People in Russia are at the mercy of the state-controlled media. People in the West needn't be. If this is the new Cold War, then the West would do well to remember what had helped it to bring down the Berlin Wall and diffuse tensions at the end of the last century.

As the Western media are overflowing with reports on the Kremlin influencing the US politics, the Russian media are curiously modest with their coverage of Trump and of the seething Washington DC. The official Kremlin response to the allegations of Russian interference with the US presidential elections is to neither confirm nor deny it. Unlike Trump, Putin doesn't like to brag on Twitter or otherwise. As a brilliant tactician, he is quietly enjoying his laurels and keeping an eye on other moving pieces: elections in France, protests in Belarus and continuing tensions in Ukraine. Putin's motives were never guided by friendship; rather his mission was to ruffle Washington, and it's been accomplished.

Russia and the US may have been friends one day (the imperial Russia offered support for the Union during the American Civil War - perhaps to counterbalance the British Empire), but in our lifetime, the relationship between the two powers hasn't progressed beyond the status of frenemies. After Stalin's death in the years of political thaw, Soviet Russians were fascinated by the US - its music, denim and domestic appliances - its almost unthinkable consumer choice. During perestroika many Russians left for the US or embraced its market principles and freedoms at home. The romance didn't last: the rapid reforms implemented in a country without solid institutions resulted in economic chaos, kleptocracy, corruption and suffering for the majority of Russians. On top of economic woes, the US and NATO took advantage of Russian weaknesses and dominated the geopolitical agenda in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. For Russians, the image of drunken Boris Yeltsin during his visit to meet Bill Clinton in Washington DC will be forever remembered as the most embarrassing episode in the brief period of courtship between Russia and the US.

It was President Putin who had put an end to years of humiliation. Like many of his Russian contemporaries, he was deeply wounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union not because he had believed in the communist ideology, but because of the overarching Soviet supremacy - in science, economics and sport - which had been lost. Restoration of Russia as a power to be reckoned with has been the priority on Putin's personal agenda since 2000. In addition, after the oil price boom was over and the Russian economy had lost its dependable source of economic stability, the Kremlin employed Russian resentment of all things US to divert people's attention from economic and social problems at home to a pacifying geopolitical show. In the country, where about 80 per cent of the population still receives their news from the state-controlled television, the public opinion is easy to shape. Russian TV channels portray America as a caricature of democracy with politicians serving the interests of business lobbyists, a country of never-ending racial conflicts, ubiquitous paedophilia and mass shootings at schools. Such coverage makes it easier to turn a blind eye on home-grown corruption, meagre pensions, high inflation and unemployment.

The US elections made an opening for the Kremlin to launch a cunning attack. Putin, unlike some of his Western counterparts, has always been playing a long game. He is an opportunist, but not an impulsive one. He would never propose a referendum if he hadn't been absolutely sure in its outcome; he wouldn't provoke his archenemy by a flippant comment like Obama had once made calling Russia "a regional power". All evidence today points to the fact that Putin has been cultivating people, sources and opportunities in the US for a while. Washington advisers with close ties to Moscow, potential kompromat on both presidential candidates Trump and Clinton, cyber attacks to discredit the Democratic Party and the army of social media bots deployed to help spread the message against the American elite didn't materialise overnight. Yet to blame the result of the 45th US presidential elections on Moscow is like diagnosing a deep-rooted illness by just one symptom. The Kremlin has helped Trump win, but it wasn't its core purpose.

Trump's victory was celebrated with triumph in Russia because it meant a powerful setback for the American establishment. Russian people, who had been repeatedly taught that democratic institutions are useless and hypocritical, rejoiced at the news. Clinton, who had been viewed as an uncompromising, blood-thirsty opponent, lost, while a larger-than-life businessman, uninhibited by fake political correctness, won. Trump promised to focus on internal US affairs, rather than act as the world policeman. For a while the American President dominated Russian news media to the extent that some Muscovites came to protest against the overly zealous coverage to the national broadcasting house. (They asked for more Putin.) Russian bookstores displayed hastily translated copies of Trump's business books, and a slogan "Let's Make Russia Great Again" gained some traction.

Russians view Trump as a deal-maker, a quality all Russians admire because it would have been impossible to make do without it in the Soviet days of shortages and waiting lines. Any doctor appointment, any favour at work or a promise to get a state flat or a dacha required some resourcefulness along with the communist faith. Many Russians also feel emotional solidarity towards Americans who were left behind by globalisation and the changing demand for work skills. Deep down Russians are fed up with kleptocracy, oligarchs and the power of the establishment, even if they don't feel brave to show their dissent during elections. But such sentiment wouldn't serve the Kremlin well. As a result, the euphoria of Trump's victory has been managed away from the television screens.

Putin has achieved his interim goal: Washington is no longer a bastion of Western democracy but a chaotic chicken coop. Resignation of Flynn and probing into the affairs of other prominent Washington advisers make little difference to the Kremlin because the objective had never been to befriend the White House but to embarrass it. Ordinary Russians feel proud that their government is pulling the strings again, and they enjoy satirical TV shows portraying Americans as losers. And now it's time for the Kremlin to tone down its Trump coverage because ultimately the US is more useful as an enemy than as a friend. Trump is too unpredictable and impulsive to rely on as a partner who could help lift sanctions or legitimise annexation of the Crimea. More importantly, the propaganda rhetoric of blaming everything on the West is yet to outlive its usefulness, not least because the Western media are helping in spreading anti-Russian rhetoric in turn.

People in Russia are at the mercy of the state-controlled media. People in the West needn't be. If this is the new Cold War, then the West would do well to remember what had helped it to bring down the Berlin Wall and diffuse tensions at the end of the last century. It wasn't the nuclear threats or the sanctions. Russian people wanted economic and political freedom, choice, liberties and better standards of living. Today they also want respect and recognition as equal partners in the increasingly interconnected world. At the moment, the West is playing tit-for-tat antagonising Russians with aggressive, loaded coverage. Instead, the only way to defeat the presiding power in the Kremlin is to employ what it fears most: democracy - its principles, laws and institutions. Otherwise, the world is at the mercy of one fat finger playing nuclear Twitter.


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