An American embedded within Moscow’s top foreign-policy brain trust explains why Putin and his cadres are backing Trump.
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, the world will remember Aug. 25 as the day she began the Second Cold War. In a speech last month nominally about Donald Trump, Clinton called Russian President Vladimir Putin the godfather of right-wing, extreme nationalism. To Kremlin-watchers, those were not random epithets. Two years earlier, in the most famous address of his career, Putin accused the West of backing an armed seizure of power in Ukraine by “extremists, nationalists, and right-wingers.” Clinton had not merely insulted Russia’s president: She had done so in his own words. Worse, they were words originally directed at neo-Nazis. In Moscow, this was seen as a reprise of Clinton’s comments comparing Putin to Hitler. It injected an element of personal animus into an already strained relationship — but, more importantly, it set up Putin as the representative of an ideology that is fundamentally opposed to the United States.
Even as relations between Russia and the West have sunk to new lows in the wake of 2014’s revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin has long contended that a Cold War II is impossible. That’s because, while there may be differences over, say, the fate of Donetsk, there is no longer a fundamental ideological struggle dividing East and West. To Russian ears, Clinton seemed determined in her speech to provide this missing ingredient for bipolar enmity, painting Moscow as the vanguard for racism, intolerance, and misogyny around the globe.
The nation Clinton described was unrecognizable to its citizens. Anti-woman? Putin’s government provides working mothers with three years of subsidized family leave. Intolerant? The president personally attended the opening of Moscow’s great mosque. Racist? Putin often touts Russia’s ethnic diversity. To Russians, it appeared that Clinton was straining to fabricate a rationale for hostilities.
I have been hard-pressed to offer a more comforting explanation for Clinton’s behavior — a task that has fallen to me as the sole Western researcher at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Better known by its native acronym, MGIMO, the institute is the crown jewel of Russia’s national-security brain trust, which Henry Kissinger dubbed the “Harvard of Russia.”
In practice, the institute is more like a hybrid of West Point and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service: MGIMO prepares the elite of Russia’s diplomatic corps and houses the country’s most influential think tanks. There is no better vantage point to gauge Moscow’s perceptions of a potential Hillary Clinton administration.
Let’s not mince words: Moscow perceives the former secretary of state as an existential threat. The Russian foreign-policy experts I consulted did not harbor even grudging respect for Clinton. The most damaging chapter of her tenure was the NATO intervention in Libya, which Russia could have prevented with its veto in the U.N. Security Council. Moscow allowed the mission to go forward only because Clinton had promised that a no-fly zone would not be used as cover for regime change.
Russia’s leaders were understandably furious when, not only was former Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi ousted, but a cellphone recording of his last moments showed U.S.-backed rebels sodomizing him with a bayonet. They were even more enraged by Clinton’s videotaped response to the same news: “We came, we saw, he died,” the secretary of state quipped before bursting into laughter, cementing her reputation in Moscow as a duplicitous warmonger.
As a candidate, Clinton has given Moscow déjà vu by once again demanding a humanitarian no-fly zone in the Middle East — this time in Syria. Russian analysts universally believe that this is another pretext for regime change. Putin is determined to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from meeting the same fate as Qaddafi — which is why he has deployed Russia’s air force, navy, and special operations forces to eliminate the anti-Assad insurgents, many of whom have received U.S. training and equipment.
Given the ongoing Russian operations, a “no-fly zone”is a polite euphemism for shooting down Russia’s planes unless it agrees to ground them. Clinton is aware of this fact. When asked in a debate whether she would shoot down Russian planes, she responded, “I do not think it would come to that.” In other words, if she backs Putin into a corner, she is confident he will flinch before the United States starts a shooting war with Russia.
That is a dubious assumption; the stakes are much higher for Moscow than they are for the White House. Syria has long been Russia’s strongest ally in the Middle East, hosting its only military installation outside the former Soviet Union. As relations with Turkey fray, the naval garrison at Tartus is of more strategic value than ever, because it enables Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to operate in the Mediterranean without transiting the Turkish Straits.
Two weeks ago, Putin redoubled his commitment to Syria by conducting airstrikes with strategic bombers from a base in northwest Iran — a privilege for which Russia paid significant diplomatic capital. Having come this far, there is no conceivable scenario in which Moscow rolls over and allows anti-Assad forces to take Damascus — which it views as Washington’s ultimate goal, based in part on publicly accessible intelligence reports.
Clinton has justified her threatened attack on Russia’s air force, saying that it “gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.” This sounds suspiciously like the “madman theory” of deterrence subscribed to by former President Richard Nixon, who tried to maximize his leverage by convincing the Soviets he was crazy enough to start a world war. Nixon’s bluff was a failure; even when he invaded Cambodia, Moscow never questioned his sanity. Today, Russian analysts do not retain the same confidence in Hillary Clinton’s soundness of mind.
Her temper became legendary in Moscow when she breached diplomatic protocol by storming out of a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just moments after exchanging pleasantries. And the perception that she is unstable was exacerbated by reports that Clinton drank heavily while acting as America’s top diplomat — accusations that carry special weight in a country that faults alcoholism for many of Boris Yeltsin’s failures.
Cultural differences in decorum have made the situation worse. In Russia, where it is considered a sign of mental illness to so much as smile at a stranger on the street, leaders are expected to project an image of stern calm. Through that prism, Clinton has shown what looks like disturbing behavior on the campaign trail: barking like a dog, bobbing her head, and making exaggerated faces. (To be clear, my point is not that these are real signs of cognitive decay, but that many perceive them that way in Moscow.)
Another factor that disturbs Russian analysts is the fact that, unlike prior hawks such as John McCain, Clinton is a Democrat. This has allowed her to mute the West’s normal anti-interventionist voices, even as Iraq-war architect Robert Kagan boasts that Clinton will pursue a neocon foreign policy by another name. Currently, the only voice for rapprochement with Russia is Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump. If she vanquishes him, she will have a free hand to take the aggressive action against Russia that Republican hawks have traditionally favored.
Moscow prefers Trump not because it sees him as easily manipulated, but because his “America First” agenda coincides with its view of international relations. Russia seeks a return to classical international law, in which states negotiate with one another based on mutually understood self-interests untainted by ideology. To Moscow, only the predictability of realpolitik can provide the coherence and stability necessary for a durable peace.
For example, the situation on the ground demonstrates that Crimea has, in fact, become part of Russia. Offering to officially recognize that fact is the most powerful bargaining chip the next president can play in future negotiations with Russia. Yet Clinton has castigated Trump for so much as putting the option on the table. For ideological reasons, she prefers to pretend that Crimea will someday be returned to Ukraine — even as Moscow builds a $4 billion bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland.
Moscow believes that Crimea and other major points of bipolar tension will evaporate if America simply elects a leader who will pursue the nation’s best interest, from supporting Assad against the Islamic State to shrinking NATO by ejecting free riders. Russia respects Trump for taking these realist positions on his own initiative, even though they were not politically expedient.
In Clinton, it sees the polar opposite — a progressive ideologue who will stubbornly adhere to moral postures regardless of their consequences. Clinton also has financial ties to George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations are considered the foremost threat to Russia’s internal stability, based on their alleged involvement in Eastern Europe’s prior “Color Revolutions.”
Russia’s security apparatus is certain that Soros aspires to overthrow Putin’s government using the same methods that felled President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine: covertly orchestrated mass protests concealing armed provocateurs. The Kremlin’s only question is whether Clinton is reckless enough to back those plans.
Putin condemned the United States for flirting with such an operation in 2011, when then-Secretary Clinton spoke out in favor of mass protests against his party’s victory in parliamentary elections. Her recent explosive rhetoric has given him no reason to believe that she has abandoned the dream of a Maidan on Red Square.
That fear was heightened when Clinton surrogate Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, recently accused Putin of attempting to rig the U.S. election through cyberattacks. That is a grave allegation — the very kind of thing a President Clinton might repeat to justify war with Russia.
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