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.