Moscow insiders say it doesn’t matter who wins on November 8. Putin has America right where he wants it.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
Russia has hung like a bad omen over this entire, ill-begotten election. Here’s Donald Trump praising Vladimir Putin, and there’s Mike Pence echoing that praise. There’s Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid asking the FBI to look into Trump’s campaign advisors for nefarious Russia ties. Here are Democrats, howling that the Kremlin is hacking this election in order to throw it to Trump. Here’s Hillary Clinton accusing Trump of being Putin’s puppet and Trump saying, “No puppet, no puppet.” There are the hacks of the Democratic National Committee, the voter roll hacks, the polling machine hacks, Cozy Bear, Fancy Bear, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Julian Assange, John Podesta, and a whole host of characters that exist only because of one of the weirdest, long-running plot twists of this election is someone called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
But that’s just the American side. What does this election look like from Moscow’s vantage point? Kremlin television, from English-language RT to the actually watched domestic channels, has had a clear, orange favorite for about a year now. But does that mean Putin himself really wants Trump to win?
“People in [the] West don’t understand,” says Sergei Markov, who runs a pro-Kremlin think tank in Moscow and is the deputy head of the international cooperation committee in the Civic Chamber. “They see that Russian television praises Trump and trashes Clinton. They do this because Trump says nice things about Russia. But the government position is very different from the TV’s because it understands that it’s just words now. And that when the election is over, we will have to deal not with whoever is president but with the American system.”
This is the unanimous view out of Moscow, regardless of analysts’ political proclivities, whether they hate Putin or love him. The desired result in this election has not necessarily been the presidency of Donald Trump. In fact, he seems to them to be rather disposable. The mission is sowing disruption, chaos. And in doing that, Putin will have accomplished something for himself, regardless of who wins next week: a deeply fractured American system, once held up as a shining alternative to Moscow’s style of power, now tarnished beyond recognition.
Even more importantly, Putin will have shown himself to be able to project power far beyond where anyone would have suspected. It’s no longer just in his backyard, like in Georgia and Ukraine — not even in the Middle East. Putin is now able to bring his tactics of asymmetric warfare deep into the belly of his greatest foe, the world’s last superpower. “Putin wants to show himself as a player who can’t be forced to do what America wants and that he can do what he needs, whether the others like it or not,” says independent political analyst Masha Lipman. “Today, everyone understands that you might not like Russia, you might hate it, you might be scared of it, you might want to punish it, but you can’t do anything about it. It can do what it wants. For Putin, Russia’s place in the world is extremely important, both symbolically and practically.”
If Trump wins, there are no illusions that he would be a pliant vassal. “Of course we like what Trump says,” Markov affirms. “We have a sense here that there are realists standing behind his back and that this coterie of internationalists and neocons that we’re so sick of, we hope that he’ll shake them up.”
That said, Markov says neither he nor any of the loyalist hawks around him have any illusions about what a Trump presidency would look like. “He’s not very experienced, so he will be unpredictable,” Markov went on. “He has a strong super ego, and he might become a hostage to his promise to be a cool guy, even cooler than Putin. Because that’s why he praises Putin, not because of his policies, but because he’s a cool guy, and I worry that Trump is going to be constantly trying to prove that he’s a cool guy.”
“If Trump wins, of course they’ll drink champagne in the Kremlin, but not for long,” says former Putin advisor and political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky. “Then they’ll realize that nothing is resolved and that the election of Trump will lead to more chaos. But that’s what we’re selling — chaos.”
If Clinton wins, Putin won’t mind that he’ll be dealing with a president who had to climb over a mountain of Kremlin propaganda and interference to get to the White House. Bitter? Fine. But at least you’ll know that we’re stronger than you thought. “How can it be a regional power if it was the central topic of the third debate?” Markov asks.
“They never believed Trump would win,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and associate professor at RANEPA. “Every indicator was always clear that Clinton would win. So they need to show her that we’re always nearby, in your phone and your email, breathing down your neck.” Even the fact that Kremlin propaganda has painted in her in such lurid colors could redound to Putin’s benefit. “The relationship to Clinton is so bad, that it’s hard to imagine it getting any worse. It’s a very characteristic Russian tactic: lowering expectations by escalating ahead of negotiations,” Schulmann adds.
Clinton’s hawkishness toward Moscow, and her bad blood with Putin, is not necessarily a bad thing for Russia. She will continue proving a convenient foil, the image of a warmongering United States bent on humiliating Russia. On a political, practical level, she’s a known quantity. “She’s just a continuation of a trend,” Markov says. “When she was secretary of state, you couldn’t call her an extremist.” Her presidency would just mean more of the same stagnant standoff between Moscow and Washington. “There won’t be any constructive discussions about anything for about eight years,” Lipman says. “And it won’t just be because of what happened in this campaign. There is stagnant thinking on both sides. It’s all too far gone; no one is making any compromises. The American establishment only talks about punishing Russia, and Putin just says you’re provoking us and we’re the only ones with the right policy. It’s hard to imagine that Putin and the administration of Hillary Clinton will overcome this. We have a long confrontation ahead, and things will continue to rot until a new generation of politicians come[s] to the fore.”
Which, of course, is fine for Putin, a notorious standpatter. Stagnation and confrontation with the West are not just things he can live with; they’re things at which he excels. “All of this is like the meeting of a sadist and a masochist, and everyone is happy,” Pavlovsky says. “I think Putin is looking at the covers of Western magazines that show him as a vampire and greatly enjoys it. And it’s good for Clinton.”
But it’s what happens inside the U.S. political system that will really please Putin. “Moscow understands that the level of unpredictability in American politics is going up in any case,” Markov says. Trump is anti-establishment and unpredictable, and “Clinton will be under constant threat of impeachment, and she will be forced to overcome this challenge. Plus, she’s very hysterical.… Both will be in conflict with Congress, which is good,” Markov says. “Let them focus on domestic politics. The less they focus on foreign policy, the better for the rest of the world.”
And here is where the importance of chaos comes in. “It doesn’t matter who’s president,” Lipman says. “Any kind of turmoil or internal split that’s hard to overcome, that is good for Russia. If your powerful opponent is disabled from within, it works to your advantage.” It also greatly undermines a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy, one that has driven Putin to distraction: democracy promotion and the idea that striving toward American values is a force for positive change in the world. “‘They said our elections are no good, but look at their elections, look at this much-touted democracy,’” Lipman says of the Russian view. “That is much more important than a single person. Everything that’s happening around the elections in the U.S. — belief in the system isn’t as strong as everyone thought, got two candidates no one likes, the system doesn’t work! It’s not a shining city on a hill.… That’s very useful for Russia.”
This is useful on the homefront, too. “This is that trick of postmodernism,” Schulmann says, “where the idea isn’t to show that there is one truth and it’s yours, but to water down the idea of truth, paint a picture of a world where there are no moral standards. In this case, it’s only important which side you’re on. And if everyone’s the same, then you play for your own team.”
Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images