Vladimir Putin, Direct Line
After experiencing decades of rightwing attacks for being “soft” on Moscow, progressives may be feeling a bit of whiplash as they witness prominent conservatives—with Donald Trump in the lead—heaping praise upon an autocratic Russian leader. Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative who tolerates little dissent, for his “very strong control over a country. ” Putin has returned the favor by strongly endorsing Trump.
For sure, we’ve also seen Putin defended by some on the U.S. left. Part of this is a legacy of the Cold War, when exaggerated claims of Russian power, its threats to U.S. security, and the domino theory about the spread of Soviet influence through popular revolutions in various countries were used to rationalize shameful U.S. policies. This history creates an understandable skepticism by many progressives of anti-Russian rhetoric in Washington.
Just as U.S. governments used to portray armed leftist revolutions against autocratic U.S. allies as part of a Soviet plot, some on the U.S. left embrace an equally simplistic view that more recent popular liberal uprisings against autocratic Russian allies were somehow the responsibility of the United States.
As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has observed,
“Russia isn’t Communist, or even leftist; it’s just an authoritarian state, with a cult of personality around its strongman, that showers benefits on an immensely wealthy oligarchy while brutally suppressing opposition and criticism.”
Indeed, inequality in this formerly Communist country is now greater than inequality in the United States and many developing countries.
The Russian media faces regular censorship and there are few independent sources of news. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least twenty-four journalists have been murdered since Putin came to power sixteen years ago, many by Russian officials.
Some in the anti-imperialist left even rationalize Putin’s support for the brutal Syrian regime, including his sending the Russian air force to conduct air strikes in crowded urban areas resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Like those who have rationalized similar attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza and Saudi forces in Yemen, these war crimes are depicted as “legal and effective“ military actions against “terrorists.”
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and irredentist efforts in the eastern part of the country constitute a direct violation of the U.N. Charter, the Ukrainian constitution, and the 1994 Budapest Treaty signed by Russia, Ukraine, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Polls as recently as the previous year showed only a minority of the population in Crimea supporting a union with Russia, making the claimed 97 percent tally in favor highly unlikely.
Despite this, Trump is among those who insist that the Crimeans “would rather be with Russia than where they were” and says he would consider recognizing the annexation, even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments have gone on record in opposition.
There is no question that a number of U.S. actions since the fall of the Soviet Union—such as the eastward expansion of NATO—have been unnecessarily provocative toward Russia, contributing to the ultra-nationalism that Putin has stirred up. Hillary Clinton’s strident anti-Russian rhetoric is also disturbing. Denouncing Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and occupation of Crimea is ironic coming from someone who supported U.S. aggression against Iraq and defended the Israeli and Moroccan occupations.
Trump’s position might even look, to some, like a welcome alternative to the dangerous escalation in U.S. rhetoric against Moscow, the moving of U.S. forces into former Soviet republics bordering Russia, and the prospect of a new Cold War between these two nuclear-armed nations.
But Trump’s pro-Putin positions are not based on a principled anti-war stance. It’s more personal than that. For example, Trump’s son Donald, Jr. has acknowledged that Russian money has “made up a pretty disproportionate section of a lot of our [the Trump Organization’s] assets.” Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns—which all other major party nominees have done for over forty years—has raised speculation that it might reveal embarrassing details of Kremlin-related financial deals.
According to Bill Browder, who once operated the largest foreign-investment fund in Russia,
“Trump is a dealmaker, and I can’t imagine that he would be doing this [promoting policies favorable to Russia] unless there was something in it for him. He doesn’t think of it as high treason. He thinks of it as a deal. What that deal is we don’t know.”
In response to questions about Trump’s repeated praise of Putin’s strengths as a leader, his runningmate Mike Pence stated, "it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader” than President Obama. When Trump was asked about his pro-Putin rhetoric, he cited the Russian president’s poll numbers, showing by close to 80 percent favorable ratings among the Russian public.
In response, Stanford University professor and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, “If Obama seized control of Fox, allowed only supporters in Congress, closed the NRA and arrested Trump, he, too, might have 80 percent approval rating.”
Trump likes Putin because he is a strongman. That should make Americans worry, no matter what their politics.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.