Reading the headlines in the Russian press recently, I note some bemusement at the role Russia has in the US presidential election campaign. “Russia leads in the US presidential race”, says the Russian Business Consulting daily. Liberal oppositionist paper Novaya gazeta talks of the “Russian track” taken in the American election, and an article in the quality daily Nezavisimaya gazeta has a strapline posing the question: will playing the “Russia card” in the presidential campaign turn a page in the crisis of relations between Moscow and Washington?
Reference to Russia’s role in the presidential campaign refers to the current hot topic in this most acrimonious of races. How close are Donald Trump’s links with Russia, with President Putin, and with Russian money? The nub of the controversy appears to be around Trump’s alleged investments in Russia and – more significantly – Russian investments in Trump’s properties. Particularly whilst the GOP candidate declines to publish his full tax returns, any Russian financial connections remain murky.
More transparent is Trump’s backtracking on his relations with Vladimir Putin, from “I do have a relationship” (2013), via “I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer” (2014), to “I have no relationship with Putin. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I never met him” (July 2016).
Determined to nail Trump as – in the words of ex-CIA acting-chief and Clinton supporter Michael Morell – “an unwitting agent” of Russia, his opponents have highlighted the clearer links with Russia of Trump advisors Carter Page, who has worked in Moscow and with Russian gas giant Gazprom, and Mike Flynn, who has appeared on propaganda-rich TV channel Russia Today.
In a similar case of aides as proxies for the candidate, the self-proclaimed anti-crony capitalism organization, the Government Accountability Institute, last month issued a detailed, footnoted, 56-page report focusing in particular on the Russian financial links of Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
As I observe this brouhaha from England, roughly equidistant between the American superpower and the Russian “wannabe again” superpower, I seek an equidistance in evaluation. Not surprisingly, given that it is the US presidency up for grabs, American coverage seems far sharper and angrier and more polarized than that in Russia. Russian press articles on the US presidential race tend to make more sober, and occasionally somewhat wry, observations. They rarely take sides. Despite what many think, Russia’s press is not so tightly controlled that all papers toe a standard Kremlin line.
Looking for the nearest to a Kremlin-media amalgam, I turn to an article in the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya gazeta, written by former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. He notes that Russia traditionally gets on better with Republican than Democrat presidents, but then sets out his preference for dealing with experienced professionals, however tough, rather than with – and he doesn’t have to name Trump here – newcomers to international affairs who can be unpredictable, inconsistent, and emotional. This hedging of bets is the Putin line.
Russian commentators note, quite correctly, that Clinton is more hawkish in her Russia rhetoric than is Trump, who has hinted at a willingness to progress relations between the two great powers beyond the Crimean impasse. A common Russian observation too is that US foreign policy tends to be fairly bi-partisan and not change radically with each new occupant of the White House.
What strikes me about this aspect of the US political debate is the use of Russia as a cipher for all things bad. It’s an election, most people don’t follow the intricacies of international relations, but “Russia is our enemy and Putin is bad” is a familiar song with an easy tune. If either candidate can associate the other with being a Kremlin stooge or Russia-sympathizer, then that’s more votes garnered. And that is all that seems to matter.
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death,
So is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, “Was I not joking?”
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife. – Proverbs 26:18-21
Such is the way of many election campaigns today, marked by whispers and contention, back-tracking and rage. Mud-slinging dismays those who seek love, truth and wisdom. Democracy at least can throw up surprises and capture popular mood. For the Putin system, stability is all, and one man can rule for a couple of decades and still be so sure of his election results that he does not deign to campaign.
But what weight ought any of this Kremlin-related campaign kerfuffle to have? The two key issues, if we can glimpse the signal through the noise, are character and policy.
Some have tried to draw parallels between the characters of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The Washington Post opined that the Republican nominee is “as pure an American expression of Putinism as we are likely to see” with his “embrace of falsehoods, cynicism and the amoral pursuit of narrow interest”.
Parallels can be found. Trump’s bellicose threat to “bomb the shit out of’ ISIS” is reminiscent of Putin’s angry warning in 1999, a few months before he became the country’s president, that Russia would “waste’” Chechen terrorists “in the outhouse”. Russia did indeed throw down death on Chechnya. The brutality was reciprocated by multiple Chechen terror acts in Russia, visited most heinously on the school-children of the town of Beslan.
There may too be similarities between Trump and Putin with regard to a reverence for money and a desire to be seen as men of action. But the differences between them are legion too, in terms of background, career path, culture, and political experience.
So far as policy goes, the rhetoric of campaigning suggests that US-Russian relations would be set to improve under a Trump presidency, as decreasing tension with Russia forms part of the “bombing the shit out of” ISIS bombast. But campaign rhetoric and policies do not always match. For all the anti-Putin rhetoric in Democrat campaigning, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to “reset” US-Russian relations too.
While many are ready to claim that a GOP victory would equate to a win for Putin, as if Trump were some sort of Manchurian Candidate, Putin’s preference is not so clear. Impetuous unpredictability is unlikely to be among the Russian leader’s wish-list for the qualities of a US president.
There is a recklessness abroad in political rhetoric across much of the contemporary world. Too many political leaders talk tough, threaten violence, and demonize people groups. In Russia, in Europe, in the US, “rumors of war” abound. A few wiser, and mostly older, voices in Russia and the West are once more drawing attention to what has been disregarded for decades, the unthinkable risks of nuclear conflict.
Confrontationalism might win campaigns and patriotic kudos, but compassion and peaceability surely – forgive the pun – trump most qualities in terms of what is needed in international affairs at this time. As for the church, contrary to noisy religious patriots in many nations, it is, in William Cavanaugh’s words, “an international, not merely national, body”. As such we are well advised to counter the idolatry of the nation-state and the violence that comes with it.
Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birbeck University of London with specialties in the politics of Russia and of religion. He has published six books on Russian politics, history, and society, and many articles in peer-reviewed journals. Edwin has taught in universities for over two decades and holds the Birkbeck Excellence in Teaching Award. He has also worked as a Senior Research Officer for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as a Parliamentary Special Adviser to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the House of Commons. He held a Visiting Fellowship at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki in autumn 2014, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and is a member of the international editorial board of Religion State and Society. Alongside his academic work, Dr Bacon has engaged with the policy and business communities, writing many consultancy reports and advising policy-makers in the UK and beyond.