Russia hasn’t played as big a role in a US presidential election since the end of the Cold War.
The list of Russia-related subplots is a long one. Russian intelligence has been accused of being behind the hacking of email accounts for both Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC, while Donald Trump has “lavished praise” on Russian President Vladimir Putin and called on the Russians to find Clinton’s 30,000 “missing” emails. And of course there was the matter of that connection between Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, which eventually contributed to Manafort’s resignation. The latest development: The FBI says Russian hackers have penetrated two state election databases in recent weeks.
All this has helped establish a narrative that Russia is attempting to meddle in the US elections on Trump’s side. But, Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian expert and professor of international affairs at The New School, thinks that as is often the case with Putin, there is more than meets the eye.
Yes, she notes, Trump has taken positions, like questioning NATO’s relevance, that would seem to serve Putin’s interests, but Trump’s strong nationalist tendencies could ultimately prove problematic.
“We’ll come back to the same sort of tug of war, but much more dangerous because both of them indicated that nuclear power is something to be used. Both have indicated that NATO might be irrelevant. International institutions might not be recognized if they’re not part of the deal. And that I think would make for a tremendously dangerous world out there, where a Cuban Missle crisis would just seem like a joke," she says.
And while Putin and Trump have similar macho styles, they may not combine well, she says. When two strong-headed jocks meet at a bar, they might hit it off well at first — but a few shots later, they also might get into a fight.
“Precisely because of those similarities and Trump being highly unpredictable, that could become problematic for Putin. So I think Clinton is a safer choice. He knows what the criticism is,” she says.
Khrushcheva, who is also a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, is a well-respected Russian scholar with her own interesting story. Her latest book, “The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind,” tells the story of the her grandfather, the oldest son of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Of late though, she’s been writing a lot about Putin and Trump for CNN, Quartz and other outlets.
She does think that Trump has advantages from Putin’s point of view, at least for the moment. Putin has long felt that Russia has been held to a double standard by the US. He sees the US as frequently meddling in other countries affairs when it suits American interests, but then criticizing Russia when it does the same.
“Putin is a guy who doesn’t like to be slighted. He is the king of the backyard, so in some ways he felt victimized. So when Trump comes in and says, 'Wouldn’t it be great to have good relations with Russia,' for Russians it’s a very attractive and unusual proposition,” Khrushcheva says. "Trump is very convenient for him."
So what of the compliments Putin has repeatedly paid to Trump, calling him a “bright” person at one point, and the little matter of the DNC hack that the FBI said it had a “high degree of confidence” was carried out by the Russians?
Khrushcheva sees the compliments as “lukewarm,” by Putin’s standards, and believes the US media made more of them than was warranted. The hacks are a more complicated question.
What About the Hacks?
First, she notes that there has been no definitive link to the Russian government or Putin. Even if the hackers were based in Russia, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Putin authorized them. In the Russian system, much of the dirty work, such as political killings, are carried out by Putin’s supporters, without his direct involvement, according to Khrushcheva.
“Putin isn’t necessarily aware of it. It’s still his responsibility. He claims to be a vertical democrat, so as a democrat, even if it’s a vertical democracy, a top-down democracy, you still have to be responsible for things that are happening in your country.”
But even if it was a KGB-sanctioned operation, the goal may have been to send a message to Clinton as much as anything else. Putin, Khrushcheva says, “always wants to see how far he can push.” She cites the infamous 2007 incident when he brought his pet labrador Konni to a meeting with Angela Merkel, who has a fear of dogs since one attacked her in 1995, and the numerous occasions when he’s been late to meetings with foreign political leaders, from John Kerry, to Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth.
“I don’t think they thought the outcome of it would be that big and that large, and knowing my Russians, I think it was just a message to say, ‘If you become president, if you are not careful with us, if you are not respecting me or us or the Kremlin, look at what we can do,’” she says.
The media storm that followed once the hack was revealed only further serve Putin’s interests, she says.
“I’m sure he was almost flattered by the response. Because it is a KGB dream to be perceived as somebody who can shake the election in the United States. But I think it was much more petty and randomer release than it’s given credit to be. Once again, in America, because Putin is a favorite villain in many ways, he’s also given more power than what he has,” she says.
Russians Prefer Trump
Whatever Putin’s preference, it seems clear that the Russian people would prefer Trump over Clinton. A poll released by Russia's Interfax news agency in June found that 28 percent of Russians favored a Trump presidency, while Clinton registered just 9 percent.
Khrushcheva attributes this to Clinton’s association with the failed “reset” of US-Russia relations, including an embarrassing translation error she had with a Russian official. She also thinks it has something to do with Clinton’s tone, and Russia’s patriarchal sensibilities.
“She’s lecturer. Nobody likes to be lectured. Russians don’t like to be lectured by the Americans,” she said.
Trump meanwhile, is the type of flamboyant, rich and vain character that translates well to a Russian context. In some ways, he’s like a '90s’ Russian oligarch.
“Trump is slightly Putin-esque. Trump is very rich, we love rich. Trump is very New Russian-like. Trump wanted a tower on the Red Square with his name on it. We understand that – we know this type.”
And Trump’s highly quotable, I’ll-say-what-I-want-and-damn-the-consequences approach that works well with the Republican base also has its appeal abroad.
“His attitude is, 'I can do whatever I want.' And who doesn’t want to do whatever they want?” she says.
Khrushcheva believes that, in broad terms, Putin will take the same approach regardless of who is elected. He will continue to be the proverbial thorn in America’s side, challenging its foreign policy in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, while pointing out what he sees as the country’s double standard, whenever the chance presents itself.
“To continue to lecture the world as if America itself has no problems is really a thing of the past, and Putin just made it his job to make sure that America is not going to get away with its hypocrisy.”