American Politics Caught in a “Russian Trap”

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Mural in the old town of Vilnius painted by artists Dominykas Čečkauskas and Mindaugas Bonanu.

4.08.2016

Well-informed American friends once told me that a campaign that highlighted “getting along” with Russia and heaped praises on a Russian leader would be impossible in the United States. There is no constituency that wants it, I was told, and there are lots of constituencies that do not want it: Baltic, Polish, Ukrainian communities; former Cold Warriors among the punditry; and all kinds of people influenced by the bad press Russia habitually gets.

Russia becoming an issue on any major U.S. politician’s agenda would be highly unlikely, I was told many times. U.S. overall trade turnover with Russia ($21 billion in 2015) was thirty times less than that with China and three times less than that with Saudi Arabia. This is why Russia-related rhetoric is cheap and politicians can afford to be scathing without the fear of undermining any serious interests. As well, other foreign and domestic issues normally overshadow Russia for those competing for the White House.

The conventional wisdom about the role of Russia in American political campaigns now seems to be obsolete.

The Republican candidate Donald Trump has shattered the Republican orthodoxy on Russia, promising to get along with Moscow and heaping praise on Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia looms increasingly large in this year’s presidential campaign not just as a foreign policy theme but as a feared puppet master behind Trump and as an alleged perpetrator of the DNC computer network hack and other attempts to meddle with the American political process.

A conspiracy-toned discussion of an alleged connection between Donald Trump and the Kremlin, Russia’s center of power, has quickly become mainstream. Andrew Rosenthal inquired in his New York Times column whether Trump is obsessed with Putin and Russia. Paul Krugman, a left-wing economist and a New York Times columnist, called Trump a “Siberian candidate.” Hillary Clinton is running against Vladimir Putin, declared Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic. Franklin Foer’s piece about Trump and his manager Paul Manafort’s and foreign policy adviser Carter Page’s dealings with Russian and Russian-speaking businessmen is headlined “Putin’s Puppet.”

All of this sounds endlessly ironic to a Russian who for years has been watching Russian political managers manipulate a threat of foreign intervention to put all independent players under effective control. The Russian opposition has long been demonized as “U.S. stooges.” The Russian state has initiated legislation that allows it to label any NGO using foreign funding a “foreign agent.” Moscow put a cap on foreign ownership of media companies, arguing that foreign publishers essentially represent foreign interests and influence Russian politics. Denouncing Putin’s opponents, independent politicians, and even provocative singers and artists as the puppets of some hostile external force has been a daily routine for the Russian state-run media for many years now.

An additional layer of irony comes from the fact that Putin, at least publicly, has shown little interest in Trump. Putin has called Trump “colorful” (which Trump, using his “truthful hyperbole,” blew up into “genius”) and welcomed Trump’s plan to restore Russian-American relations, that’s basically it. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been a subject of the Kremlin’s passion and anger. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Putin once said. As pointed out by Steven Lee Myers and Neil MacFarquhar in a recent piece for the New York Times, Putin went on to “accuse [Clinton] of engaging in ‘active work,’ an old term of art for covert KGB operations.” When she compared Russia’s intervention in Ukraine to Hitler’s moves in the 1930s, Putin said she had “never been too graceful with her statements.”

The June hacker attack on the DNC servers looks like something that could be traced to the perpetrators, thus proving or refuting the Russian connection. On Monday the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it was looking into the hacker attack, the first acknowledgment from the agency that it is probing the incident. Some commentators suggest that if Russia was behind the attack and did help leak the emails it was to get back at Clinton rather than to help Trump directly. It could be an attempt to “stir the pot,” as Russia has done with the support of insurgent parties in Europe, said Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, when interviewed by the New York Times. Mr. Putin, Rojansky said, had to be aware that direct intervention could well backfire with American voters, especially those in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania with roots in Poland, Ukraine, or the Baltics.

The Russian political elite may indeed favor Trump, but this does not strike me as necessarily obvious. Trump may prove too disruptive even by Russian standards: his policies, if applied as advertised, may lead to regional conflicts and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is not in Russia’s national interest, Vladimir Frolov, an astute commentator on Russian foreign policy, wrote recently.

What Moscow has already achieved is that it has made everybody believe that Putin supports Trump. This alone has proved sufficient to sow the dragon’s teeth of suspicion and distrust on the American political field. The words “puppet,” “agent,” and “stooge” dot the pages of the American press, mostly the liberal press. I don’t know whether the Kremlin even has a favorite in the U.S. elections, but I do know what Russia’s ruling politicians love to watch. They love seeing others get caught in what one might call a “Russian trap”: when others are caught doing the very thing they accuse Moscow of doing. They enjoy watching those who accuse Moscow of calling its opponents “foreign agents” do the same to their own political opponents. The same is true for accusations of corruption or the use of doping in sports. This proves Moscow’s political creed beautifully: everyone is just like us, everything else is pretense.

Maxim Trudolyubov is editor at large of the Russian daily Vedomosti and a former guest of the Russia in Global Dialogue research program at the IWM.

From The Russia File.

Copyright © 2016 Maxim Trudolyubov.

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    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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