As the US presidential election heats up, Russia, and Russians, find themselves unlikely actors.
Moscow: To the astonishment of many Russians, Russia seems to have become a major actor in the ongoing US presidential election campaign. Allegations that the Kremlin is meddling in the process, by publishing hacked Democratic Party emails on Wikileaks and may even be unleashing an army of pro-Donald Trump “trolls”, have the country’s foreign policy community atwitter with amazement.
“This is a fantastic turn of events. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like it,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “The idea that Vladimir Putin – our Vladimir Putin! – can seriously influence a US presidential election is astounding to me. When I read some of these allegations, it sounds as though Putin has ceased to be just a man and become a kind of supernatural force. If I were Putin, who was a nobody 20 years ago, I’d really be enjoying this,” he says.
Serious US commentators have labelled Trump, the Republican candidate for president, ‘The Siberian Candidate’, in part due to his foreign policy heresies – challenging the relevance of NATO and calling for better relations with Moscow – but also his reputed financial ties to Russian oligarchs. There are overt suggestions that he’s more than just Russia-friendly, and could actually be a Kremlin agent.
When Trump suggested (he says “sarcastically”) that Russia might be able to produce 30,000 emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from her controversial private email account, leading Democrats came close to accusing him of being in treasonous league with Russian intelligence. But many Russian foreign policy experts deride the idea that Russia, either directly or through its secret services, has any interest in promoting what they see as the oddball candidacy of Trump.
“This is the first time in my memory that US-Russia relations have become such a hot button issue in a US presidential election. The idea that attitudes to Russia are some kind of litmus test of patriotism is sort of remarkable,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
“Of course Russians see Trump’s remarks as a bit wild. But we’ve already gotten used to the idea that this is Trump’s brand – he’s very anti-protocol, he negates all the gods of stability, a real rebel in the system. And, it seems to me this is his big strength. For us, it’s very entertaining,” Stokan says.
Security experts in the US say they have good reasons to believe that Russian intelligence services were behind a massive and long-lasting hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that stole a huge trove of documents, including the controversial emails whose publication on Wikileaks two weeks ago triggered consternation at the beginning of the Democratic Convention.
Whatever the role of Russia in the hacks, the timing of the leaks appears to be controlled by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who uploaded an encrypted 88 GB file containing all the purloined DNC materials about a month ago. Assange claims there are plenty more such revelations to come.
The Kremlin has dismissed the allegations as “absurd”, but most Russian experts say they just have no idea what’s going on. Some are skeptical of the notion that Putin would actually favour Trump enough to take the major risk of interfering, however indirectly, in domestic US affairs.
“All these claims about how Putin wants Trump to win is based on just one statement he made. He called Trump ‘yarki,’ which means ‘bright’ if you’re talking about the weather, but if you’re talking about a person, it just means sort of ‘outstanding’. And he is undeniably outstanding,” says Vladimir Posner, who has spent decades working in both the US and Russian media, and currently hosts one of the country’s top interview shows, Posner, on state-run Channel One.
“The thing is that Putin – and I know Putin – is a totally different kind of person from Donald Trump. Putin is cautious and controlled, where Trump is impetuous and temperamental. In general, Russian authorities prefer predictability and stability, and it’s hard to believe they would feel any kind of affinity for Trump. Of course, they also believe Hillary Clinton is an anti-Putin hawk, and don’t expect anything good from her. My impression is that Putin would probably prefer ‘none of the above’ in the US election,” Posner says.
Lukyanov says that a lot of people in Russia’s foreign policy establishment are fascinated with the Trump phenomenon, and they are all carefully parsing the transcript of his recent foreign policy interview with the New York Times.
“It can’t be denied that there is a huge interest in the things Trump is saying,” Lukyanov says. “Many Russians who sympathise with him don’t actually believe he can win, but are happy to see that he’s changing the conversation about foreign policy. And, of course, nobody has any hopeful expectations for Hillary either. There is an enormous amount of discussion going on about all this and, frankly, we are all amazed to find Russia seeming to take centre stage. What next?”
Clinton, who has publicly accused Trump of subservience to the Kremlin, may be facing her own troubles over past Russian connections. A new report by a right-wing US think tank alleges that she promoted the transfer of sensitive military technologies to Russia and reaped financial rewards for the Clinton Foundation when she oversaw the “reset” in US-Russia relations during her term as secretary of state.
At least some Russians are openly supporting Trump, including ultra-nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who has expressed hope that Trump will “shake up the world” in several essays and a TV show.
Another Russian supporting Trump is Alexander Domrin, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, who has started bilingual Facebook group ‘Russians for Donald Trump‘, which he hopes will grow into a big discussion forum on the subject. He bristles at suggestions that he and the 200 like-minded Russians who’ve already joined the group are “trolls”, and insists that they are just average Russians expressing their views.
“You know, the US spends money trying to influence politics in my country, but they call it ‘democracy promotion’ and claim that they’re only doing good deeds,” says Domrin. “We’re not spending any money here, but we do want to make our opinions known. We think relations between Russia and the US will be better under Trump than under Hillary. That concerns us. We’re not taking our cue from the Kremlin, we’re speaking for ourselves”.