Trump’s rise to power will force the Kremlin and the state propaganda apparatus to come up with a new way to portray the U.S. How Russia chooses to view the U.S. could have important political and economic implications.
Newspaper front pages reporting on President-elect Donald Trump winning the American election are displayed for sale outside a store in London, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Photo: AP
Hopes that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. presidential election and that America would finally wake up, sigh with relief and return to its daily routine failed to come true. In fact, the saga is just beginning. The American people elected possibly the most unconventional president, Donald Trump, in the nation’s entire history. Only one thing is a certainty - his presidency won’t be boring over the next four years.
Probably, Russia pinned the greatest hopes on Trump’s success in comparison with just about any other country in the world. In fact, many Russians believe that it was Moscow that started reassessing and transforming the post-Cold War world order and embarked on a new era of global politics. As a result, the UK left the European Union, the right-wing conservatives strengthened their positions in the EU and throughout the world, and anti-American and anti-elitist sentiments spread across the world.
Trump’s presidency is one of the events in this chain and is, probably, not the last one. As some Russians might believe, the Kremlin played a significant role in all this and succeeded in influencing the global political processes.
Read the Q&A with Dmitri Trenin: "Trump's presidency and the future of US-Russia relations"
Nevertheless, the news about the U.S. elections results astounded many Russian politicians. Few expected that the unconventional and outspoken Trump would be so popular among Americans. So, the victory of Trump came as a big surprise for many representatives of Russia’s political elites, even though this surprise was gratifying for them. The lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, met Trump’s presidency with a great deal of applause. Russian President Vladimir Putin made no bones about his satisfaction with the American choice.
In the upcoming months President Putin will have to understand if he really contributed to Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss. And even though he might deny his contribution, if any, people around him will pay him tribute for his implicit role in changing the course of the American presidential campaign. And it is not a matter of Russians hacking the Democratic National Committee — it is a matter of both Clinton and Trump exploiting the image of the Russian leader for their own political goals.
After Trump’s victory, one could assume that Putin turned into the symbol of a new right-wing populism that has been growing both globally and locally. According to such logic, even the president of the world’s superpower is supposed to be thankful to Putin for his election.
However, paradoxically, while supporting anti-establishment political forces abroad, the Russian president embodies this establishment in his own country. This incongruity is easy to detect in the controversial and ambiguous reaction of the Russian political elites to the results of the American elections or, as some refer to it, “Trump’s revolution.”
Before coming up with certain conclusions, the Kremlin should understand who might be included in the Trump administration. There needs to be more clarity about the strategy of the U.S. President-elect, including Trump’s selection of a new Secretary of State to replace John Kerry.
However, as indicated by the first responses of pro-government experts, they appear to be very puzzled regardless of the general triumph amidst the Trump victory.
What’s next? How should they see the country, which until recently they have described as the “major opponent” or the “main foreign policy enemy”? How best to convey Russia’s foreign policy agenda today during Trump’s presidency if previously they used the image of Obama to discredit the U.S.?
It is no secret that the Kremlin took most foreign policy decisions while looking over the U.S. agenda. For example, the incorporation of Crimea partly came as an attempt to prevent the creation of an American military base on the peninsula. The growth of conservative ideology within Russia resulted from the Kremlin’s desire to withstand the U.S. initiatives for promoting democracy and the alleged orchestration of “color revolutions.” In general, conservatism was seen as a tool to decrease the influence of the West.
And today, with the rise to power of Trump, who has already complimented Putin and garnered the vote of very conservative Americans, Russia finds itself in a very tricky situation. The image of America changed immediately after the election results were announced. Yet this new America, as seen by the Russian propagandists in their most fantastic dreams, creates problems for them, because this new reality destroyed the thoroughly elaborated propaganda tactics of the Russian media, which had previously been depicting the U.S. in a very unfavorable way.
In this regard, Clinton could have been another gift for Russian spin-doctors and propagandists, who could have come up with a way to frame her new administration just as they did the Obama administration. Her behavior at least is easy to understand and predict: That’s why her presidency would be better for Russia’s political elites, with the Kremlin being able to follow the same schemes and policy toward the U.S., like it was during Obama’s tenure.
However, on the other hand, the sweeping changes in Washington could be beneficial for the Kremlin, even in the case of Trump giving up his friendly attitude toward Russia. The fact is that the American elections have already satisfied the interest of the Russian political spin-doctors — they redirected the demand for changes within Russian society to the United States.
Now Putin can take a timeout, while Russians watch over the dynamics in American society and hope for the best. Positive shifts in U.S.-Russia relations could allow the authorities to focus more on domestic policy and steps to overcome the economic crisis.
Many Russians believe that the country’s economic challenges are the result of the Kremlin’s independent foreign policy and Putin’s decisive response to the dominance of Washington. In accordance with such naive logic, if the U.S. admitted their shortcomings and mistakes, life in Russia would be better.
For Putin, such a situation creates a very favorable environment for overcoming social and economic crisis before the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 2018. Now the “Trump effect” can produce additional political points for the Kremlin and give a good reason to reschedule the presidential elections to 2017. After all, by 2018 friendly relations between Trump and Putin might come to an end, given the whimsical nature of the U.S. President-elect.
The prospects of the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations under “a new Trump” might disappear by 2018, yet the economic problems of Russia are hardly likely to disappear. Moreover, it won’t be possible to blame only external factors for exacerbating the economic crisis, in any worst-case scenario.
Thus, the unpredictable outcome of the U.S. presidential elections might give the Kremlin a chance to strengthen its political standing inside and outside Russia. Yet on the other hand, this creates a situation, where the Russian authorities can postpone necessary economic and political reforms while hoping for an economic recovery by normalizing relations with Washington. Yet, such hopes might be misleading, which could have grave implications for Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.