U.S. presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are likely to pursue completely different approaches toward Russia if elected president. For now, the Kremlin is taking a pragmatic look at both candidates.

Coffee mugs for sale with the images of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo: AP

Republican candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton are the two clear leaders of the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Each of them, though, has very different visions for the future of Russian-American relations, making it difficult for the Kremlin to determine how these relations might evolve over the next few years.

For now, it appears that the sympathies of the Russian leadership are with Trump. After all, the Republican frontrunner pledges that he will get along with Russia and initiate serious debate in the United States about the Kremlin’s foreign policy. So, to what extent are Moscow’s hopes for better relations with the U.S. under Trump justified?

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Skeptics would argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support of Trump is really just a clever way for the Kremlin to open up discussion about the weaknesses of the U.S. political establishment and the flaws of the American voting system. According to such an explanation, Trump’s existence could be a gift for the Kremlin to prove that “America is degrading” and soon fall behind.

Moreover, such pundits argue that Trump’s presidency would be beneficial for Russia, as it would weaken the United States. Trump appears reluctant to use force and is calling for a new type of isolationism. His recent doubts about the validity of NATO were music to Russia’s ears.

However, if one goes beyond mere speculation, Trump has obvious appeal for the Russian political elite. In addition to his ability to eradicate any and all stereotypes about American politics, Trump is also quite pragmatic. In short, he is not connected with the quagmire of U.S. politics. He is a true leader who has the “aura of unrestrained masculinity” and all this is extremely important for Russia’s leaders, who believe in the value of interpersonal relations between heads of state.

The Democratic Party’s Clinton is a different case. After spending decades in U.S. politics, she, as the Kremlin firmly believes, is driven by stereotypes, including those formed during her tenure as Secretary of State. Of course, unlike Trump, she knows much more about Moscow, she has steady views and this makes her much more predictable for the Kremlin.

At the same time, she is regarded as old and intransigent – a sort of “Iron Lady,” with whom it is very difficult to deal. The Russian leadership has a long memory and it remembers Clinton’s controversial statements about President Putin, her calls for stopping the Russian “empire” and opposition to Russia’s “spheres of influence,” and her enthusiasm about interventionist policies in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

As the next president, she will likely profess the need for democracy, human rights and regime change near Russia’s borders, according to the Kremlin. This causes negative expectations in Moscow, where such human rights concerns are regarded as a form of hypocrisy covering up a policy of American-style Realpolitik.

Two things are often misjudged in Moscow. The first one is the influence of the president’s team. All American presidents are not free in their actions – the party establishment runs the actual policy. Be it Trump or Clinton, their everyday business may be far different from their statements made on the campaign trail.

It is not quite clear whether Trump is a true isolationist, or if he is simply making a play for votes. He is trying to be as flexible as possible. And if so, he may well attack Putin in the future just for the sake of extra publicity. His team of foreign policy advisors is comprised of neoconservatives, whose vision of the world is radically different from the one contained in Trump’s current speeches.

Clinton’s team is more favorable for Russia. She has surrounded herself with veterans of the Obama administration – the very people who were the architects of the “reset policy” with Russia. From this perspective, then, Clinton’s team has much more experience than Trump’s team in opening up a new type of relationship with Russia.

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The factor that Moscow overestimates the most is the role of Russia in U.S. domestic politics. Frankly speaking, American voters demonstrate little interest in foreign policy and Russia is not at the top of their priorities, even when it comes to international relations. Both Trump and Clinton have to consider the “Russian issue” during the campaign, but it is at the periphery compared to other matters.

Despite all its apparent sympathies for a Trump presidency, Russia prefers to refrain from putting all its eggs into one basket. It hopes for the victory of Trump, but prepares for tough negotiations with Clinton. Russian politicians already know that U.S. politics can be quite unpredictable.

What Russia’s leaders surely do not want is another bout of interventionist U.S. activity in the international arena – and they would be glad to support any candidate who would refrain from such an active foreign policy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.