For Putin, only one thing matters about Trump: He’s not Hillary Clinton

REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic
Vladimir Putin pretty much knows what to expect from Hillary Clinton. It’s not hard to see in this case why he would prefer an alternative.

Forget the talk about a Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin ‘bromance.’ And the somewhat overwrought speculation about collusion in the hacking and release of Democratic National Committee emails, or Trump’s urging Moscow (joking or not) to dig around for Hillary Clinton’s deleted messages.

Sure, it has been clear for months that Russia would prefer to deal with Trump as the next U.S. president. But don’t think that Putin and his inner circle are in love with the Republican presidential nominee. While an image depicting Putin and Trump locked in a big kiss may have gone viral, Putin doesn’t fall in love. It’s more a matter of how useful Trump could be.

From Moscow’s perspective, there is one simple and overriding fact about Trump that really matters: He’s not Clinton.

There is no need to dwell on positive comments Putin and Trump have made about each other, or on the stylistic similarities: On foreign policy, both present themselves as tough guys aiming to re-establish their country’s rightful place and correcting a long list of grievances.

As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Clinton is the embodiment of meddlesome and wrong-headed ideas that have dominated U.S. foreign policy for a generation. Russia’s leaders argue that those policies have made the world a more dangerous place. Close to home, they have resulted in the U.S. sticking its nose in areas that rightfully should be Russia’s sphere of influence. And in Russia’s own affairs.

Russia believes the United States should stop throwing its weight around in an effort to remake the world in its own image, and to its own advantage.

The list of Russian complaints is long: That in the late 1990s, when post-Soviet Russia was at its weakest, Clinton’s husband launched an air campaign against Moscow’s traditional friends in Serbia to halt atrocities in Kosovo. That George W. Bush charged headlong into a disastrous war in Iraq. That President Obama fumbled the Arab Spring, backing revolutionaries and insurgents against established — but far from democratic — regimes in Egypt, Libya and in Syria, another longtime Russian ally.

The U.S. has pushed the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep and twice sided with protesters who ousted pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine. Obama has been instrumental in organizing sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Joshua Yaffa pointed out that while Obama is accused at home of having conducted a feckless foreign policy, the criticism in Russia is exactly the opposite — that he is a reckless expansionist. 

From Moscow’s perspective, Clinton is worse. Her reputation is that of a foreign policy hawk, who has pushed for tougher U.S. action in Syria and whose support for intervention in Libya was decisive within the Obama administration.

And then, things get personal. This NBC piece by Josh Meyer quotes the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who makes clear just how much Russian officials in general — and Putin in particular — dislike Clinton. Among other things, Clinton has been outspoken in her criticism of how Russia has conducted elections that helped Putin consolidate his power.

So if Russia did hack the DNC in an effort to meddle in the U.S. election, perhaps its main point was a form of payback — a warning to Clinton that two can play that game.

Trump, of course, wants to “Make America Great Again.” His definition of what that means in terms of foreign policy — if he has an actual definition rather than just a slogan — seems far outside what has been the U.S. mainstream since the end of World War II. Clinton on the other hand is right in the middle of that mainstream.

Instead of bolstering alliances like NATO, for instance, Trump questions their value, and raises doubts about whether he would meet U.S. treaty obligations to defend members

Such a radical rethinking of U.S. policy would be regarded in Russia as a monumental stroke of good fortune. Even in its diminished post-Soviet incarnation, Russia does strive to dominate a sphere of influence along its borders. That includes countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former Soviet republics that are now members of NATO. And it certainly includes Ukraine.

While it is difficult to make the case that Ukraine is an integral part of the European economy or central to Western security, the Baltic states present a different challenge. Russia has a lot of ways to squeeze the three tiny countries. An alliance whose leading member won’t push back to protect them is in big trouble. 

With neither a track record nor a lot of detailed policy positions, it’s hard to know what kind of approach Trump actually would follow on Russia — or most other foreign policy questions. He also has said, for instance, that the U.S. might have to shoot at Russian planes that harass U.S. warships

But Russia would probably try to flatter Trump as a fellow tough guy, offering deals that emphasize narrow interests while downplaying democracy and human rights. If that doesn’t work, it could seek to take advantage of his lack of experience in a complicated game of geographic chess. 

Putin pretty much knows what to expect from Clinton. It’s not hard to see in this case why he would prefer an alternative — even an unpredictable one.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 08/02/2016 - 11:03 am.

    Why would Russia worry about Clinton?

    Nothing happened when Russia invaded Crimea. Then add in Obama/Clinton State Dept removing the weapons system from Poland that help deter aggression by Russia towards Eastern European Countries like Ukraine. Also remember that silly red re-set button moment, what in the world was that?? Bill Clinton may have bombed Serbia but he also said”the era of Big Govt is over” and nobody thinks Hillary is following that model. Bill and Hillary are not the same person and have totally different platforms. Again it gets back to, is Hillary running on 4 more years of Obama or running away from Obama and the past 8 years?

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/02/2016 - 11:54 am.

      Oh, yes, those pesky Balkans

      [Don’t mean to steal your thunder here, Joe, simply filling out the conversation a bit.]

      The Clinton Balkans Adventure:
      That’s a rather embarrassing foray the press has spiked for about 20 years now. We still have troops there, as well (for those with a one-eyed view of the world). That really was the Albright/Clinton war, wasn’t it?
      Readers should also remember that was perhaps the first time most Americans every heard of this volatile region. It was also perhaps the first public discussion regarding repressive actions against Muslims by various local factions. If anything, most Americans might recall the bombing of several historic bridges. [Perhaps we should rerun those old tapes.]

      “Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright] born Marie Jana Korbelová).”
      “Albright is fluent in English, French, Russian, and Czech; she speaks and reads Polish and Serbo-Croatian as well.”

      I’ve always been rather ambivalent about Albright’s term as Secretary of State, even while recognizing her significant credentials. What she did to keep a lid on other hot spots while focusing on the Balkans (Serbia in particular), is not clear. She did hold a definite position on Iraq.

      Albright is an HRC confidante, and likely tutor How influential was she from 2009-20012? Don’t really know.

      [And, Mark, good to have you back here.]

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/03/2016 - 09:43 am.

      nothing happened?

      Nothing except the US led the establishment of a sanctions regime that contributed to a 3.7 percent drop in Russia’s GDP in 2015 and is likely to contribute to a 3 – 3.5 percent drop this year. What else do you suggest the West should do? Do you seriously think a weapons system more or less in Poland would have kept Putin from meddling in his “near abroad” just as the US and every other country meddles in its? Ukraine is not a NATO member; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are, and Putin knows NATO, including the US, is committed to their defense. So far.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/02/2016 - 12:36 pm.

    Strong men always like weak-willed tools that can be bent to their purposes.

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