Published daily by the Lowy Institute

'Dizzy with Success': What Putin thinks of the Trump ascendancy

Putin must now be tempted to suspect that God is a Russian; or at least on the side of his righteous and much maligned compatriots.

Published 26 May 2017 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a brilliantly successful 12 months, notching up an impressive series of wins.

In the Middle East there has been war and treasure. Putin's military campaign in Syria - he boasted in February that the campaign was his personal initiative - was viewed by many as a remarkable feat and one that marked Moscow's successful reinsertion into Middle Eastern affairs after eight years of strategic absence. The wrenching images of the campaign's war crimes are fading as the Kremlin mounts a new peace offensive. And, perhaps not by chance for those (including this writer) who believed one factor behind the Syrian intervention was a desire to influence the oil price, Russia has recently struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to stabilise prices.

Elsewhere, old foes have become friends. The president of Turkey, the country that has fought more wars with Russia than any other and which is a NATO member to boot, is now chummy with Putin and has happily joined the global dictators' club.

Another enemy-of-old and NATO member, Poland, has lurched towards authoritarianism while the Kremlin's efforts to build political influence in the Balkans – or destabilise them further, depending on one's perspective - are going well.

Elsewhere in Europe, Brexit and the refugee crisis have gravely weakened the EU. Candidates favoured by - and in Marine Le Pen's case openly supported by - Russia came close to success in the Dutch and French elections.

In Asia, the Philippines' President has in effect defected to the Russian camp. While Rodrigo Duterte's planned four-day visit to Moscow this week was cut short by trouble back home, the two countries still signed some 10 deals, including military agreements.

Even in faraway Australia, Pauline Hanson has expressed her unqualified respect for the Russian president, becoming the latest in a line of Australian admirers of Russian 'strong leaders'.

But the sweetest victory of all came on 8 November when a fusillade of champagne corks resounded throughout Kremlin halls as the result of the American presidential election became known. The state-controlled Russian media was euphoric. A widespread popular reaction was exemplified by one of my Russian friends, an academic, who emailed me this:

Trump is victorious! A victory for all people on this planet who yearn for peace! A man of common sense, a man who organizes beauty contests, not wars for oil! A man who will banish NATO from Europe! A man who opposes hostility between nations, who is for cooperation! A victory for common sense itself! Oh, what a glorious morning!

President Trump’s attack on his NATO colleagues in Brussels this week will again have left Putin cockahoop, and will renew concerns in Europe that he is indeed a Manchurian candidate, and that unless the President can be brought into line with the usual NATO approach to the Russian threat that his Defence Secretary, National Security Advisor and other senior appointees have been voicing reassuringly, US-Europe relations are likely to become seriously strained.

When Putin and his entourage contemplate the convulsions the Trump presidency has wrought, they may well recall an expression known to every Russian: Budet i na nashei ulitse prazdnik: roughly 'our day will come'. If any readers wish to watch their reaction to the burlesque in Washington, they can view RT footage, available here on the BBC.

It's tempting to ponder whether Putin expected that the little help from his friends that Russia offered to Trump would be enough to ensure his victory. We shall never know. Perhaps the Russian strategists reasoned 'if not this time, maybe next?' In the interim, populist theatricals in other countries Russia views as adversaries are good in themselves; they discredit democracy and could yield other rewards.

A supplementary goal of Russia's efforts to influence the presidential election was presumably to discredit the entire US electoral process. And the Washington grand Guignol provides a diverting backdrop to the assiduously orchestrated Russian presidential 'election' looming next March.

Whatever Putin thought last year, he must now be tempted to suspect that God is a Russian; or at least on the side of his righteous and much maligned compatriots. Of course these compatriots are expected to concur with Putin's version of Russian past and present, as set out in numerous texts published by Medinsky, Putin's Minister for Culture and chief court historian (and by some of Putin's foreign supporters, for instance Russophobia 2.0: A Disease or a Weapon of the West, by Giulietto Chiesa or Return to Moscow, by Tony Kevin). After so imposing a string of triumphs, Putin has reason to think that, like the tsars before him, he is anointed to lead his people.

The dangers of success

Putin would know well an article under Stalin's name published in Pravda on 2 March 1930, which called for a halt to the allegedly successful policy of collectivisation, 'where successful actually meant abysmal failure at a terrifyingly high cost'. In contemporary Russian the article's title, 'Dizzy with Success', is used ironically to connote the risk of hubris.

On Australian TV earlier this week, visiting Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar depicted Putin as an opportunistic improviser. Chess master Garry Kasparov has described him as a poker player with a weak hand but a gift for bluff. Others see him as a masterly strategist. But quite a few of Putin's decisions have been at best ill-advised. A graphic example was his grossly mishandled return to the presidency in 2012. Another was his gambit, following his triumphant annexation of Crimea, to mount and sustain a separatist war in east Ukraine, which has proved a fiasco. Another was appearing in public seated at the same table with Mike Flynn, then touted as Trump's future National Security Advisor, who accepted US$40,000 from RT for his appearance.

The RT video clip on the BBC that was referenced earlier shows members of Putin's court chortling at their leader's mock dressing down of Foreign Minister Lavrov for a putative failure to report formally the sensitive intelligence that Trump apparently shared with him and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office. As a highly trained and self-disciplined KGB officer, rarely does Putin 'tell people outside the family what he is thinking' (to cite Don Corleone). This time he decided to share his exultation – perhaps because it was 'in the family'. But broadcasting images of such mockery to a global audience may yet prove to have been hubris.

For the auguries for Operation Trump appear troubling. His election was far from the perfect crime: the links and subversion were too evident, and they appear to be crippling the new administration. The priceless asset has made serial blunders. 

The bizarre meeting with Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office appeared to generate a renewed surge of hope in the Kremlin that a major pay-out on their investment was close. That may explain the grotesque offer by Putin, with his imposing record of mendacity, of a transcript of the meeting – though this may also have been simply an example of the mordant Putinesque humour. A well informed Russian commentator writes that the Kremlin saw the meeting as a signal that, at last, the US was offering Russia full 'equality'; and it may reasonably have hoped that Trump receiving Henry Kissinger to advise on policy towards Russia and Ukraine presaged a further handsome return.

But just when it seemed Trump was deciding he had to knuckle under and accept his foreign policy being shaped by the likes of James Mattis and HR McMaster, he suddenly sacked James Comey. The dismissal has given huge impetus to the enquiries into the Trump team's Russian ties. With the appointment of a special investigator and talk of impeachment, the post-election jubilation appears to have given way to mounting doubt and anxiety.

One motive that is crystal clear

Taking into account all of the above, it seems remarkable that some foreign commentators still find it difficult to see that Putin has been engaged in an all-out attempt to bring his Western enemies down, by whatever means. If 'enemy' seems excessive, let us recall that the standard KGB expression for the US during the Cold War was 'chief adversary', and that until quite recently the Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, Patrushev, was claiming publicly that US hostility to Russia was 'systemic' and 'immanent' – that is, no matter who was president, the US would continue to seek to 'dismember' Russia.

As Robert Horvath noted in an unpublished address to the Pacific Institute in February (cited here with permission), the most lurid specimen of this propaganda is the allegation that Madeleine Albright once said it would be impossible to construct a just world while Siberia's vast natural resources were controlled by Russia alone. That allegation was first aired in an interview in the Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta with a former KGB general about an occult secret project to read the minds of Western leaders. This project was the source of the Albright-Siberia claim.

Meanwhile, some European leaders appear to have recognised belatedly that Putin is a geopolitical insurgent (to borrow Michael Wesley's term) bent on snuffing out the 'wretched little hamster', as he called the EU. The Kremlin's tactics - support for Brexit and Le Pen, and evidence that similar measures are being deployed in Germany - have the potential to go badly wrong. One example was the 'Lisa F case', a concocted tale of the rape of a 13-year-old Russian-German girl in Berlin by asylum seekers that was clearly designed to damage Merkel.

And if Trump does not survive, the fallout in terms of a far more muscular US approach toward Russian interests could be dramatic. Hostility toward the Kremlin is a rare issue around which the fractured US political establishment could coalesce. As the former Australian diplomat and respected commentator Bobo Lo has noted, Putin and his entourage may be underestimating the longer-term strategic consequences of their actions.

On the other hand, Putin may be of the view that he wins, no matter what happens to Trump. Disarray in the US and the chance to refurbish the image of Russia as a victim of an again-hostile Washington would suit his purposes as he makes preparations for his 're-election'.

At this point, it is worth remembering a wise observation made by the American diplomat, historian and Russophile George F Kennan*:

It is not our lack of knowledge that causes us to be puzzled by Russia. It is that we are incapable of understanding the truth about Russia when we see it.


*Editor's note, this sentence was adjusted after publication to include Russophile

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