One-Trick Ponies

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum some pro-Remain pundits decided to try a curious tactic. Convinced that Vladimir Putin, the kleptocratic head of a hopelessly backward, dying country that is both on the point of collapse and yet ready to conquer half of Eastern Europe at a moment’s notice, was hell-bent on destroying the European Union if not the entire “liberal order,” they began harping about how Putin was pro-Brexit. Vote Leave? Putin will be happy! You’re really concerned about the opinion of Vladimir Putin, right? Shockingly, the tactic failed to prevent a Leave victory at the polls.

To be sure, Russian state media did run a pro-Brexit campaign through their RT UK channel and Sputnik News, but in reality, cheering on the break-up or at least destabilization of the EU can be just as problematic to Russia as it is beneficial. Mark Galeotti explains as much in this post-Brexit article.

Now one might think that after seeing the failure of their attempt to link Brexit and Putin, folks in the media might have learned their lesson. After all, there’s an election coming up in the US, one which may be the most important in decades. So hopefully they won’t try the same failed Putin card again, right?


While “Putin’s Puppet” is by no means the first attempt to create a solid link between Trump and Putin (and probably not the first to contain some glaring factual errors), it is probably the most direct attempt to connect the two that I’ve seen.

For you veteran readers, you know that I’ve handled claims like this several times in the past. For new readers here’s one post dedicated to this topic of the alleged Putin-Trump love affair. I’m also not the only Russia watcher who’s written against this idiotic attempt to portray Trump as Putin’s loyal ally in the US. But the more hysterical pundits keep beating this dead horse and as a result, the Russian media seems to play along. Yet this is one of those rare occasions when the Russian side seems to understand what to do while the Western side doesn’t learn. Russia may be a one-trick pony in the information arena, but these pundits keep falling for that one trick.

One needs to understand that Russian support for fringe figures an their movements in other countries isn’t part of some brilliant grand strategy. In fact it’s pretty dumb when you think about it- spending money to appeal to what are usually the least influential segments of a given society. Moreover, many of these movements pre-date Putin’s latest adventures if not his entire administration itself. Nearly all of these movements and parties either hold views which are diametrically opposed to the narrative that the Kremlin, or they have in recent years modified or compromised their own ideals in order to accommodate Kremlin foreign policy out of a naive or severely misguided belief that Moscow is somehow their ally.

In order to understand the Russian motive behind supporting these movements, one needs to look to the writings of Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin, whose work is taken quite seriously in higher circles of power in spite of producing virtually no tangible results. The key concept here is the idea that Russia should support far right and far left movements in foreign countries in order to destabilize them or otherwise leave them too occupied with their own domestic politics to oppose Russian foreign policy or, more realistically, keep Russia’s elite from stashing their money away in those countries.

Years before RT was even founded, Russia often attracted right-wingers by portraying itself as a “Christian nation” that defends “traditional values” and opposes NATO and the EU. Another selling point was that Russia “knew the truth about Communism” and had thrown it off, which played into a long-held right wing conspiracy theory that the Soviet Union and later Russia would reject Communism while the US would become Communist thanks to ‘dem librul hippies. The spread of this idea also happened to coincide with the rise of the Putin administration, a period we could also call “that time when Western journalists suddenly realized that the Russian president is doing bad things.” Since far rightists tend to hate what they call “the mainstream media,” that media flak only makes Putin look more attractive.

One could dig much deeper into this phenomenon, but basically what you have going on here is Putin and Russia achieving an image of being “anti-establishment,” which attracts fans abroad, most of whom have never visited Russia and can’t speak the language. Over time, these groups express their admiration on the internet, which attracts Kremlin attention. What follows are guest appearances or columns on Russian media, invitations to international fascist gatherings like those in St. Petersburg, and so on. This is how the links form. It’s organic, not something directed from the Lyubyanka or the Aquarium.

Where does Trump fit into this? First, Trump obviously positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate. As such, he attracted anti-establishment types. Obviously he’s got people working on his campaign who notice this. What’s more, he notices that establishment pundits and the current president criticize Putin’s Russia. So what does he do? The anti-establishment thing of course- he praises Putin. Russian media picks up on this, and they start saying positive things about Trump. Trump fans pick up on this and become even more enamored with Putin.  I doubt there really is any ideological affinity between the two. Most likely Kremlin political technologists see him as a highly polarizing figure who will be divisive and prevent the country from taking any action Russia doesn’t like. And even that might be naive.  Despite this, all the while certain pundits, particularly those who are closely followed by the writers of the Putin fan club, were screaming about how Trump and Putin are in cahoots. Score yet again. Trump is anti-establishment; Putin is anti-establishment.

That’s Russia’s one trick- pretending to be anti-establishment. Of course it’s utter bullshit. Russia’s authorities are all about order, so long as it suits them, not rebellion. But the panicky, schoolmarm-ish antics of some pundits make Russia’s bad-boy act look genuine. And of course there are few things more pleasing to the Kremlin’s ears than Western pundits panicking over the idea that Putin is handily destroying the EU while directly influencing American politics via a “puppet” in the form of Trump. If nothing else, this is extremely valuable on the domestic front.

In America, the best remedy to Trump is to simply point out that he is an idiot, with idiotic “policies,” and that idiots support him. In the case of Russia, you have to treat it like that class clown in high school. If he gets a rise out of the teacher, he wins. If the teacher stays calm and highlights the immaturity and futility of his actions, his routine backfires and he’s embarrassed in front of the whole class.



8 thoughts on “One-Trick Ponies

  1. AndyT

    A significant part of the establishment has been turning Vladimir Putin into an easy scapegoat of sorts – however, while the Web is full of pro-Putin anti-establishment types, the average European guy/gal is far more concerned about the EU’s austerity-driven policies and bureaucratic fussiness.

    When you have to spend your time facing everyday woes, you happen to pay little attention to a 007-like “information war” between some plutocrats in the West & some plutocrats in the East 😛

    Finally, I really cannot see how a Putin-Trump alliance could ever work, too – the slightest provocation from the former would drive the latter’s fanbase nuts (and vice-versa)

  2. The Elicitor

    Peter here from The Elicitor. Making my first foray into the blogosphere tracking happenings across Russia and Eurasia. I’ve been a fan of yours for some time and just wanted to say thank you to you and too few others like Dr. Galeotti for your commitment to setting the facts straight and providing useful analysis on the region. Look forward to hopefully contributing to the discussion in a constructive way as well.

    One comment on your post here. In the context of the Putin regime wanting to stay in power, I agree it is ridiculous to think of Russia as anti-establishment. Putin wants order and stability. He wants state sovereignty to reign supreme, well more specifically the sovereignty of the “great powers.” Let the permanent UN Security Council members negotiate and dictate the course of world events. No “CIA/State-backed” color revolutions. No NATO-led humanitarian R2P interventions. Internal affairs stay internal. Regional affairs stay regional for that great power to decide. Can’t get more establishment than the debatably outdated post-WWII global security architecture. Can’t get more establishment in the modern era than the Westphalian concept of sovereignty above all or the 19th century Vienna system.

    Yet it is also interesting to consider how that damn perception of Russia as anti-establishment continues to proliferate, which you explore above. To elaborate further on your point regarding the appeal of Russia’s “traditional values” to right-wing groups, I would add that since the 2000s Russia worked to embrace and develop its status as an emerging economic power in the BRICS grouping, which tried to position itself at times as a challenge to the so-called Western-dominated “liberal world order” or establishment. Putin’s oft-cited Munich Speech from 2007 casts Russia as standing up to the United States in particular. In this context, the perception proliferates. There is a nice piece over at Foreign Policy that goes into more detail ( And here I’ll end my musings on international order.

  3. Shalcker

    There is a problem with your “best remedy” – it doesn’t work. See Brexit. People called those who supported Leave idiots for long time (and supported it by Leave being majorly supported by those without university education), and doubled down on this rhetoric after Leave won. And that is clearly not convincing anyone.

    I’ve found two good articles on this matter at Bloomberg by Megan McArdle:
    “Britain’s Elites Can’t Ignore the Masses” and “‘Citizens of the World’? Nice Thought, But …”

    Quoting from them:
    Somehow, over the last half-century, Western elites managed to convince themselves that nationalism was not real. Perhaps it had been real in the past, like cholera and telegraph machines, but now that we were smarter and more modern, it would be forgotten in the due course of time as better ideas supplanted it.

    That now seems hopelessly naive. People do care more about people who are like them — who speak their language, eat their food, share their customs and values. And when elites try to ignore those sentiments — or banish them by declaring that they are simply racist — this doesn’t make the sentiments go away. It makes the non-elites suspect the elites of disloyalty. For though elites may find something vaguely horrifying about saying that you care more about people who are like you than you do about people who are culturally or geographically further away, the rest of the population is outraged by the never-stated corollary: that the elites running things feel no greater moral obligation to their fellow countrymen than they do to some random stranger in another country. And perhaps we can argue that this is the morally correct way to feel — but if it is truly the case, you can see why ordinary folks would be suspicious about allowing the elites to continue to exercise great power over their lives.

    “Citizens of the world” mindset took over elites and media, and the rest are not amused… And Trump, as proper populist, is abusing those “anti-elite” sentiments.

    From second article:
    A lot people do not view their country the way some elites do: as though the nation were something like a rental apartment — a nice place to live, but if there are problems, or you just fancy a change, you’ll happily swap it for a new one.

    In many ways, members of the global professional class have started to identify more with each other than they have with the fellow residents of their own countries. Witness the emotional meltdown many American journalists have been having over Brexit.

    A lot of my professional colleagues seemed to, and the dominant tone framed this as a blow against the enlightened “us” and the beautiful world we are building, struck by a plague of morlocks who had crawled out of their hellish subterranean world to attack our impending utopia.

    Obviously utopia aren’t going to happen. And populists (and those supporting them) aren’t going to go away just because you call them “idiots”. I would suggest doing some trust-building with them instead if you truly want to change their opinions… but that is exactly what Trump is doing with his rallies.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I would say that the ruling class failed to understand the appeal of nationalism in the face of the economic conditions they were creating. While it isn’t exactly new, the attitude of many of these people, similar to the attitude of American Democrats since the 90’s, was that whatever was good for them (business people and well-to-do professionals) was equally good for everyone else. Or in other words- globalization is inevitable and wonderful! On the contrary, globalization may be inevitable (it’s been around much longer than people realize), but it’s not universally wonderful. A responsible government and intelligentsia would have asked itself: “How do we allocate resources to offset the negative side effects of globalization?”

      But alas, they never asked such questions, because the prevailing idea was TINA (There is no alternative (to capitalism) and the “end of history.”

      You could also liken this to the problem of nation building in countries with clan or tribal-based systems like Afghanistan. If you want people to look beyond the system they’ve known for centuries, one that has proven at least sustainable, you’d better show them a good reason. Why should I give a shit about the “nation” of Afghanistan more than the people I live with in my village? I don’t know anyone in Kabul. I see no reason why the same thing doesn’t apply to superstates like the EU. While there is a vast difference between the EU and Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, you see the same problem there- they could never work out the problem of nationalities.

      Of course the EU offered many advantages, but some classes were far more able to take advantage of the benefits than others. Working class people in industrialized countries, for example, often find themselves holding the short end of the stick when it comes to the benefits and cons of globalization.

      Once again, that simply did not matter to many advocates of the EU.

      1. Asehpe

        Let us hope that this will change in the future. Because, well, globalization isn’t going anywhere… Trump and all his taxes won’t stop it, since it depends on much more than simply free-market capitalism. As many other historical phenomena, it’s going to happen, regardless of whether or not the masses benefit from it in an obvious way. The problem is, of course, elites who are out of touch with their so-called constituents, and who fail to see the problem created by leaving so many people out in the dark. They are thinking like the nobility in the times of Louis XIV, who apparently thought the lower classes couldn’t possibly have any agency or general effect on historical trends.

        Nationalism finding a second life, precisely because of the forces of union that were supposed to keep it at bay? How ironical. Let’s hope the bewildered won’t stay like that for very long and will do something about it, other than just say “you’re a bunch of idiots!” to the nationalists. Or else, nationalism might end up having this century the kind of bad consequences it had last century.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Well I don’t know, there were some countries that were very protectionist and tried to stand up to globalization. For example Qing dynasty China. They made out well, right? Uh…They did, right?

  4. Pingback: Trump & Putin: Final Summary | Russia Without BS

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