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.