Even the Kremlin Might Be Shocked at President-Elect Donald Trump
Would Vladimir Putin have preferred to sabotage a President Hillary?
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Foreign policy experts have often criticized Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin for being short sighted. He’s tactically clever, the theory goes, but has a habit of making geopolitical gambles which end up with him in a worse position than when he started.
That theory, if not wrong, is at least seriously challenged by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
Putin’s apparent decision to meddle in the election could prove to be one of the cleverest moves from a world leader in our lifetime, or a gambit that got so out of hand not even the Kremlin could have prepared for the result.
There’s evidence to support both theories. While Russia’s state-owned channel RT America was partial to Trump’s campaign, the channel was far more anti-Hillary Clinton, specifically. However, there was little doubt which candidate the Kremlin preferred.
Hackers affiliated with the Russian state broke into the email accounts of Democratic Party officials, dumping the contents for the world to see. And Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate the Putin-friendly Trump after his election night victory.
But Trump’s victory was far too large — possibly the biggest for a Republican since George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988 — for the Kremlin to have plausibly tipped the scale. It was Clinton’s election to lose.
“As it turned out,” National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote, “disaffected voters wanted change regardless of its agent, and Clinton’s cautious approach pleased only Democratic true believers.”
Even many of Trump’s own campaign advisers didn’t expect he’d win the Republican nomination let alone the presidency. His success represents a historic political realignment in the United States, with likely cascading consequences for the post-Cold War, liberal international order.
Perhaps Putin saw in Trump another illiberal, national populist. There are others in Hungary and The Philippines. Marine Le Pen’s National Front will surely now be emboldened in France. These parties and leaders arise from trends which are much larger than any ex-KGB man in Moscow could unleash on his own, although he could foresee and react to them.
But then again, Trump could very well moderate his positions and not seek the temptation to become an American version of Viktor Orban. Although Trump’s calls to discriminate against Muslims, among other ugly and unconstitutional proposals — combined with Congress’ erosion of power— might foreshadow a dark period in American history.
Putin certainly would not have liked a Hillary Clinton presidency. Clinton contributed to the Obama administration’s decision to take out Russian ally Muammar Gaddafi, which enraged the Russian strongman, and Putin blamed Clinton for the protests which greeted his return to the presidency in 2011.
Clinton doesn’t think highly of Putin, either. As secretary of state, she took a harder line on Russia than Obama — to the consternation of White House officials — and campaigned in 2016 for tougher sanctions and a (light on details) no-fly zone over Syria.
Trump praised Putin, questioned America’s commitment to NATO, suggested lifting sanctions on Russia and to recognize the annexation of Crimea. However, Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan convinced the Kremlin that he was psychologically unfit for the presidency, according to U.S. counter-intelligence reports obtained by Newsweek.
So on the morning of Nov. 9, the Kremlin’s royal court must have surely been as shocked as everyone else. It’s possible that enabling a Trump victory was never the point — better to cause mischief, such as with the DNC hack, and make a future Clinton administration’s job more difficult.
Were Clinton to have been elected, this theory goes, she’d go on to lead a divided country while behaving on the world stage in a manner consistent with normal parameters. Thus, interfering with the elections could constrain the United States while it remains fundamentally predictable.
The same reports from Newsweek, however, indicated that Russian officials feared a Trump presidency because of his unpredictability. A Kremlin plan to meddle in the elections might have never put much weight on an equally — or even more — chaotic world leader coming to power in the United States.
It was a plan to attack Hillary with the expectation that she would win. And hence the short-sighted nature of Putin’s thinking. At least that’s the theory.
It’s still impossible to know. The inner workings of Russia’s government are secretive by design, and decisions come with little warning. Even those near the top of Russia’s elite confess to having little idea about what the boss has planned. And the system’s inherent vagueness makes long-term strategic planning impossible, Russia expert Mark Galeotti noted at Foreign Policy.
“Plenty of Russian foreign-policy insiders,” Galeotti wrote, “also appreciate that Trump’s volatility … could mean he’d make for an unpredictable and potentially problematic interlocutor for Moscow, too.”
In a world with nuclear weapons and the potential for escalation, predictability can be underappreciated virtue. And for all of the failures and contradictions of the West’s post-Cold War order, alliances and economic unions — which may be unraveling at this moment — they set aside enough self-interest to avoid the major wars of the past.
Now in the second decade of the 21st century, these alliances have weakened, borders have begun shifting again, and nationalist leaders promising to expand their militaries and to act exclusively in their nations’ self-interest have emerged to lead — with the support of popular constituencies.