Donald Trump’s oft-stated admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t just about macho admiration or authoritarian envy. It’s more in the spirit of a locker-room rivalry, a matter of camaraderie and competition—and to some extent deterrence. Searching for an analogy, one thinks of the way Russia-friendly U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrbacher once reportedly arm wrestled with Putin to decide who really won the Cold War. (One should note that Rohrbacher lost.)
Trump’s frenemy strategy—or ambivalence, it’s hard to know which—may account for why he went from asking aloud on Twitter in 2013 before the Miss Universe Pageant, will Putin “become my new best friend?” to saying during the candidates’ debate on Oct. 19, “I don’t know Putin. I have never met Putin. He is not my best friend”—prompting a lot of weepy Putin memes on social media.
While Trump’s business dealings with Russia and his foreign policy advisors’ ties to Russia have been intensely scrutinized by the media and now the FBI, evidence of direct Russian manipulation of Trump with the intent of affecting the U.S. election has been elusive.
The Russian leadership’s own statements and the Russian domestic media and English-language propaganda outlets have been easier to document. But even those organs are careful to keep at least a semblance of balanced reporting on the U.S. presidential campaign, while Putin and top officials have repeatedly stressed their neutrality.
In March 2016, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline, “The Bromance Between Trump and Putin is Over.” The occasion was a video ad that the Trump campaign had produced that they apparently thought would flatter Putin while insulting President Barack Obama. It showed Putin dressed in a judo outfit throwing someone to the ground, followed by an image of a masked ISIS fighter.
In the event, the clip ended up irritating Putin’s aides and possibly him, as well.
What the Russians fastened on was the portrayal of their leader not as a can-do he-man by contrast with Obama—as Trump often claims—but as an aggressive figure out of sync with the non-violent statesman-like image the Kremlin prefers.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, delivering a mild rebuke by his standards, said, “It’s no secret that the demonization of Russia, unfortunately, is an essential feature of the American election campaign.”
Then there’s the question of whether Putin ever called Trump brilliant, or, as Trump likes to say, “a genius.”
Putin said, apparently off the cuff, that Trump was an ochen’ yarkiy chelovek’, ochen’ talantlivy, which means, in context, “a very lively (or vivid) person, very talented.” But yarkiy was widely translated as “bright” or even “brilliant,” and the hyperbolic drift began.
Eventually debate over Putin’s real intention using the word “yarkiy” gathered so much publicity that finally, on June 17, 2016, Fareed Zakaria, a panel moderator at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, directly asked Putin to explain what he meant. The response was not a little irritated:
“Why are you distorting everything?… Take a look at what I said—I said in passing that Trump is a vivid personality. And what, he’s not vivid? He’s vivid. But I didn’t give him any other characterizations. But here is what I paid attention to for sure, what I welcome for sure and do not see anything bad here, but on the contrary: Mr. Trump stated that he was prepared for a full-fledged restoration of Russian-American relations. What is bad here? We welcome all this, and what, you don’t?”
In fact, this quote contains the essence of the Kremlin’s main agenda when singing Trump’s virtues and denigrating Hillary Clinton—a desire to have someone in the White House who will maintain “friendly relations” with Moscow by ignoring a host of issues, from its invasion of Ukraine to its bombing of civilians in Syria, to its jailing of dissidents and silencing of the press at home.
When the scandals regarding women who were sexually abused began to multiply and Clinton opened up a gap between her ratings and Trump’s in the polls, the Kremlin likely decided to cut its losses, putting some distance between itself and Trump.
On Oct. 23, Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s former chief of staff who remains a close associate as presidential representative on the environment and permanent member of the Security Council, just happened to make himself available for an interview with the Financial Times. In what was clearly an effort to change public perceptions about ties to Trump, Ivanov said that it was “absolutely untrue” that Moscow backed Trump—although, as numerous media accounts indicated for months on end before that, the Kremlin has been busy doing just that.
Less visible indications of the Kremlin’s eventual walk-back could be seen as early as September.
Paul Abrams, a Huffington Post author who has many published op-eds but no evident Russian expertise, claimed that “inside the Kremlin,” the leadership had not so just cooled to Trump, it has always maintained a duplicitous scorn of him.
“According to Putin insiders, he sees Trump as a weaker, far more ignorant, wholly self-absorbed version of Neville Chamberlain. Easy-pickin’s,” wrote Abrams.
No evidence was provided for how this “real assessment” of Trump was obtained. The reality is, no one knows what the Kremlin is thinking, or if its manifold actors are united in a common view of the U.S. election.
It may very well be true that Putin, a shrewd KGB man and judge of character, as he told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, privately finds Trump unpredictable and not always on side with the Russian agenda, but nevertheless wishes to disrupt the election and create obstacles for Hillary Clinton.
It’s also possible that the Soviet-bred KGB officer, indoctrinated by communism his whole life, had the kind of grudging awe that such types develop for the man of commerce—the oligarch. Although, if U.S. Treasury sanctions and international rumors are to be believed, Putin is himself one of the world’s wealthiest men, even if he’s unable to flaunt the fact in quite the same way as a gold-plated Manhattan millionaire with Liberace tastes.
Putin’s most recent comment on Trump, delivered at the just-concluded Valdai conference in response to a question about Russia’s by-now notorious meddling in the U.S. election cycle (mainly via hacking Clinton-affiliated emails accounts and the Democratic National Committee), was to downplay his own agency in manipulating the outcome of a presidential race.
“Does anyone seriously think that Russia can influence the choice of the American people?” he asked. “Is America some kind of banana republic? America is a great power. If I’m wrong, correct me.”
By contrast, Trump has long made public declarations of an almost worshipful high regard for the Russian president.
As far back as 2007, when Trump was still enthusiastically endorsing Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, he was effusive in his praise for Putin, comparing him positively with George W. Bush.
That year Trump told Larry King on CNN that Putin was “whether you like him or don’t like him,” doing “a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.”
(Trump also made clear his affection for political strongmen, no matter how murderous, as he claimed that Bush had been mistaken in removing Saddam Hussein, not because of humanitarian concerns or the failure to establish security in post-invasion Iraq, but because the dictator “killed terrorists.”)
A year later, while fishing for Russian investors with a media opportunity at the Trump Tower, the real estate tycoon told Chayka, a Russian-language magazine for expats and the diaspora in the United States: “I really like Vladimir Putin. I respect him. He does his job really well. Much better than our Bush.”
These warm sentiments would blossom further in 2013 as Trump prepared to hold the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
“Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow—if so, will he become my new best friend?” Trump tweeted.
In September that year, Trump took to the airwaves to heap praise on Putin and pour scorn on Obama after The New York Times published an op-ed purportedly written by Putin (it was placed by a PR firm), calling for the United States to exercise “caution” regarding any intervention against the Assad regime.
“Well he really becomes with this letter,” Trump said, “almost the world leader… He really looks like he wants to take over the world. He wants to take the mantle.”
A few weeks later, after a Moscow-led agreement between the United States and Russia on the elimination of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons had been signed, Trump praised Putin’s leadership, but attempted to roll back his position a little while speaking to Larry King, this time on King’s RT-syndicated web show:
“It’s not a question of admire, I think he’s done a very smart job. I think the letter was well crafted—very well crafted. And, I think he’s done a very smart job, because it was all about Syria, and while he got President Obama off the hook, by getting him off the hook he took over Syria and Assad survives.”
But by the time Trump’s pet project, the Miss Universe pageant, took place in Moscow in November 2013, he was boasting of a personal relationship with Putin.
Trump was interviewed in the Russian capital by Thomas Roberts of MSNBC, whose parent company NBC held exclusive rights to broadcast the event in the United States. Roberts asked Trump if he had any relationship with Putin or influence on his government.
“I do have a relationship,” Trump replied, “and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I are saying today and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form. But I do have a relationship with him and I think it’s very interesting to see what’s happened. I mean, look, he’s done a very brilliant job in terms of what he represents and who he’s representing. If you look at what he’s done with Syria, if you look at so many of the different things, he has really eaten our president’s lunch, let’s not kid ourselves.”
Indeed, Trump would continue to boast over the next few months that, while in Moscow, he had spoken “indirectly and directly” with Putin, “who could not have been nicer.”
The Russian leader had even, Trump claimed, sent him a “beautiful present.” It was a lacquered box, delivered by the pageant’s co-chair, the Azerbaijani-born Aras Agalarov, who aspired but failed to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
These comments were both made after Russian forces had taken over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and had begun an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine.
Unfazed, Trump still talked up the big strong man in the Kremlin as a superior strategist to Obama:
Nor was Trump put off when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him whether he was uncomfortable with the fact that so many journalists and political opponents had been killed under Putin’s watch.
Speaking on the day after Putin’s aforementioned “yarkiy chelovek” comment, Trump said that “at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” Pressed again, he opined: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe. You know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on, a lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is.”
However, in February this year, an interesting change occurred. While Trump was still boasting that Putin had called him a “genius,” he was now attempting to distance himself a little.
Perhaps feeling the pressure of hostility towards the Russian government from the media and, in particular, the party whose nomination he was seeking, Trump started claiming that he had never had any personal relationship with Putin—a stark contrast to his tales about chatting with him in Moscow in 2013.
During a campaign event in South Carolina on Feb. 17, Trump was asked about his “current relationship with Mr Putin.”
“Well I have no relationship with him other than he called me a genius, he said Donald Trump is a genius and he’s going to be the leader of the party and he’s going to be the leader of the world or something. He said some good stuff about me and these characters that I’m running against said: ‘We want you to disavow that statement.’ I said: ‘What? He called me a genius so I’m going to disavow it, are you crazy?’ And besides that, wouldn’t it be good if we actually got along with countries? Wouldn’t it actually be a positive thing? Do we have to always fight? I think I’d have a good relationship with Putin, who knows, I mean who knows, but I think we’d have a good relationship.”
Trump would repeat this denial during a July 31 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, stating that he had never met, nor spoken on the phone with Putin.
Certainly, Trump’s boast during the Republican debate last November that he had “got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes” is a lie. Putin and Trump were not on the same continent, let alone in the same studio for the broadcast recording.
Trump may just have been engaging in his trademark self-aggrandizement when he claimed to have met Putin. It’s worth noting that back in July 2015, while visiting his golf resort in Scotland, Trump had said that he thought that he would “get along very well with Vladimir Putin.”
At the same time, Trump’s effusive praise for the Russian president has been countered with his portrayal of him as a threat to American interests: Putin is to be respected for his competence and self-interest, but Putin is a rival to American power and enjoys lording it over the United States.
In 2011, Trump published Time To Get Tough, a political manifesto of sorts, which included a brief section on Russia’s relationship with the United States. The text is notable for a rather more wary view of Russia’s foreign policy than he espouses at present. Trump argued that President Obama had been outplayed by Putin on two key issues: missile defense in eastern Europe and the then-embryonic Iran nuclear deal.
While Trump now seems keen to distance America from treaty obligations to defend NATO allies, five years ago he claimed that Obama had decided to “throw our friends Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus and leave them naked to missile attacks ‘despite having no public guarantees’ that Moscow would help crack down on Iran’s missile programs.”
Trump, noting that he often spoke highly of Putin “for his intelligence and no-nonsense way,” wrote:
“Putin has big plans for Russia. He wants to edge out its neighbors so that Russia can dominate oil supplies to all of Europe. Putin has also announced his grand vision: the creation of a ‘Eurasian Union’ made up of former Soviet nations that can dominate the region. I respect Putin and the Russians but cannot believe that our leader allows them to get away with so much—I am sure that Vladimir Putin is even more surprised than I am. Hats off to the Russians.”
Foreign policy for Trump, then, is less of a struggle to contain Russian actions for the sake of maintaining order and security, but self-interested power rivalry which can be settled over lunch with some grand business-like deal and mutual respect between tough strongmen.
And yet, the author of The Art of the Deal has already shown his hand before starting negotiations. For all his bullish aggression towards domestic political rivals, game show contestants and women, The Donald has announced that he wouldn’t be nasty to Vladimir:
“I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly, but there’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly, as opposed to the way they are right now, so that we can go and knock out ISIS with other people. I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why would I tell him what to do? Why do I have to get tough on Putin? I don’t know anything other than that he doesn’t respect our country.
“President Trump would be so much better for U.S.-Russian relations. It can’t be worse. I don’t think he has any respect for Clinton. I think he respects me. I think it would be great to get along with him.”
As to how much Putin really does respect Trump, the jury is out.
Certainly, as we have shown, the Russian President has withheld any open praise, beyond the misinterpreted “yarkiy” comment.
While Trump may fancy himself some great titan of industry, by the standards of Russian oligarchy, he is a minnow—he has no monopolies, no strategic resources, no mines or oilfields. Trump has nothing to his name to equate himself with the barons with whom Putin shares his lakeside Dacha.
But Trump’s overt sympathy for Russia, his willingness to trade anything for money or influence, and his political outlook makes him someone Putin would, indeed, love to do business with if Trump were in the White House.
And just last week, at the Valdai conference, Putin came closer than ever before to endorsing Trump’s political message, if not the man himself.
Despite mildly admonishing Trump for his “extravagant” behavior, Putin said:
“I think there is some sense in his actions. I say this because in my view, he represents the interests of the sizeable part of American society that is tired of the elites that have been in power for decades now. He is simply representing these ordinary people’s interests.”
This populist message is one that the Kremlin has been all-too happy to foster in the last few years, especially in Europe, where once-fringe political elements that have come to dominate debates toe the Russian line and, in return, receive support—sometimes financial.
These forces played a vital role in the British vote to leave the European Union, a huge boon for the Kremlin.
Putin will be on a roll if another shock result comes in next week.