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Putin and Trump’s bad bromance

The recent leak of emails from inside the US Democratic Party have led to allegations that Trump is a Kremlin agent. This is clickbait conspiracy at its best.

Recent allegations that Trump is a Kremlin agent replicate classic conspiracy theories. (c) Evan Vucci / AP / Press Association Images All rights reserved.Put Russia and Vladimir Putin in a headline, especially if it’s about the KGB, propaganda or spy games, and you’ll increase the clickbait factor of an article tenfold. The coverage of the recent email leak from the Democratic National Committee, allegedly carried out by Russian hackers backed by Russian intelligence, is a case in point. The hackers then supplied the extracted emails to Wikileaks, whose motives and reputation as an impartial upholder of transparency have raised quite a few eyebrows in the recent months.

Over the past few days, the popular argument in the mainstream US media has been that Donald Trump — a controversial businessman, celebrity and the Republican party presidential candidate — enjoys the support of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin personally. This argument goes further, saying that Trump is Vladimir Putin’s “Siberian candidate”, who has been injected into American politics to represent Kremlin interests or even to implode the US, thus undermining Russia’s major adversary.

Are Trump and Putin friendly? Sure. Are Trump’s positions beneficial to the Kremlin? Definitely. But the conspiratorial notion of Russia driving major domestic political events in the US is the result of a decade of campaigning to cast Vladimir Putin as the world’s leading “strongman”.

Man of the year or villain of the decade?

In 2007, Vladimir Putin became Time’s man of the year. The iconic image of the Russian president on Time’s front cover became a representation of modern Russia. This Time cover and the Kremlin’s other achievements in engaging with western media all contributed to the positioning of Putin as a strong global leader.

PR consultants abroad and public intellectuals at home had a more specific part in this project: they made Putin the leader of the third world — one who explicitly challenges what the leaders of the G8 (and the US, in particular) say and do. As Gleb Pavlovsky, a long time Kremlin advisor, put it back in 2007:

“You cannot invent a global mission, but you can choose it out of a short list of real, eagerly sought goals. Putin did it. In the world of the simultaneously destructive and utopian ‘Bush doctrine’ the demand for resistance to the US is impossible.

However, there is a global demand for this resistance... The containment of the US is Russia’s function for the subsequent years. The majority of humankind, including its western part, will tacitly support all Russian actions in this sphere even without openly expressing public support. Putin has found a unique niche of unarticulated global demand for particular policies and occupied it.”

The promotion of Putin along these lines has left western intellectuals prone to using familiar stereotypes of the cold war and inflating them onto the next level. Moreover, the Kremlin has done its best to spread the image of Putin as a hawkish and cunning leader able to take revenge against his enemies by any means available. The successful demonstration of the power the Kremlin still possesses, despite negative economic predictions of Russian and foreign experts, elevated the Russian leader’s image to the top level of the global elite.

June 2016: Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with Russian Ambassadors in Moscow, Russia. Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Consequently, in the popular media, constant references to the Russian president can clearly explain everything Russia-related, even vaguely. The spy scandals, the troll factories, campaigns against the domestic opposition and, more importantly, the Ukrainian affair and the operation in Syria have only made the myth of the all-powerful Putin stronger.

The media’s case that Trump is colluding with Putin rests on several arguments, none of which hold much water

Other projects designed to reach out to global audiences, such as RT, have played a parallel role in promoting a particular image of Russia abroad: the global power that aims to represent the third world countries and political minorities that suffer from US domination.

Moreover, the channel became a major broadcaster of various conspiracy theories. These theories drive ratings and clicks thanks to their controversial and occasionally bizarre assumptions. This was, in turn, used by RT’s management, which have transformed them into a crucial element of the channel’s news agenda and a tool of the Kremlin’s public diplomacy aimed at undermining its major geopolitical rival, the US. By giving a voice to various political groups inside the US, the Kremlin has managed to use their arguments against the US government.

The cry of experts and politicians that RT’s propaganda is a threat to national security of western countries have also developed the image of the “omnipotent Putin”. It is no surprise, therefore, that the news of the hack on the servers of the Democratic National Convention a few days ago, which was allegedly executed by Russian hackers working for Russian intelligence, found fruitful soil. Major US media quickly ran articles (with Putin’s photo curiously central) alleging that Donald Trump is the major beneficiary of the scandal. Conspiracy theories naturally followed.

Donald Trump: a “puppet” without a master

Over the past week, alarmist conspiracy theories have spread through social networks and mainstream US news sites. Franklin Foer in Slate warned that Putin “has a plan for destroying the west — and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” Anne Applebaum and Paul Krugman, well respected American intellectuals, referred to the solid corpus of anti-communist conspiracy theories of the Cold War when they described Trump as the “Manchurian Candidate”. Less prominent writers have also contributed to the topic by summarising and establishing the alleged links between Trump and the Kremlin as definite facts.

The working conspiratorial narrative of the leak scandal provides a skeleton of an argument which vaguely describe Putin’s alleged support of Trump. First, Trump has financial interests in Russia and his ties to Russian money are significant. Second, Trump’s team is connected to the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs. Third, Trump stated that he doesn’t plan on supporting the Baltic states in case of conflict and will “look into the case” of recognising Crimea as a part of Russia. Fourth, both Trump and Putin have made complimentary statements about each other.

Blaming the foreign power (Putin) in this context is instrumental, perhaps, tactically useful, and definitely falls into the popular pattern of seeing the Russians behind everything

These four points serve as an explanatory framework for why Putin is interested in seeing Donald Trump in the White House next year. And on Wednesday, the worst fears of conspiracy theorists and Democratic supporters alike gained factual grounds when Trump, in his usual brazen manner, invited “Russia” to hack and release the 30,000 emails which Hillary Clinton sent from unsecured servers during her time as Secretary of State. Democratic party spokespeople immediately accused Trump of disloyalty to the United States, even calling his words “treason”.

"Trumputin". CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Chris Piascik / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This is not the first time that Trump has sparked scandals based on conspiratorial allegations. Ironically, it’s seemingly for the first time he is himself accused of conspiring against America. Yet, the presence of conspiracy theories is a sign that the political system is experiencing a crisis of trust in current political institutions and ruling elites. Conspiratorial allegations are, after all, a powerful instrument to ruin reputations, the accusations against Donald Trump, who wants to represent the “ordinary man”, are capable only of further polarising public debate.

If Hillary Clinton wins, she will face millions of people who distrust her policies. Blaming the foreign power (Putin) in this context is instrumental, perhaps, tactically useful, and definitely falls into the popular pattern of seeing the Russians behind everything. Yet it’s counterproductive, as it won’t help understanding the nature of current events clearly.

No lessons learned

Few lessons seem to have been learned from the UK’s referendum, during which the unsuccessful Remain campaign often disproportionately concentrated on Putin the boogeyman. The spectre of the Russian president, who would supposedly celebrate Brexit in the event that it happened, lingered in pro-EU speeches and op-eds in the run-up to the referendum that saw the United Kingdom leave the European Union by a small margin.

Putin, the Remainers stressed, is the only world leader striving for a weak Britain and fractured EU. Even though the issue of external forces influencing their decision seemed largely irrelevant to an electorate preoccupied with domestic issues like disenfranchisement of the working class and immigration, the Remain leaders and their sympathisers pressed this line until the very end of their losing campaign. There wasn’t a single incident that directly implicated Putin or Russia in influencing the outcome of the UK referendum — the “Putin wants Brexit” argument largely hinged on “that’s what he wants”.

Yes, Russia exploits cracks in the facade of the western establishment — but only because these cracks already existed, independent of any Russian influence

If Russia did indeed “meddle” in the Brexit vote, as many a pundit claimed, you’d expect a revolving door of Leave campaigners at Russian embassy galas, receiving instructions and donations. But that wasn’t the case. Russian foreign affairs officials begrudgingly denied any involvement, calling the EU referendum an internal issue in which they had no interest.

From their off the record comments, one could infer that there was no plan for Brexit and definitely no strategy to help the Leave campaign win, for several reasons. One being that even the most innocuous sign of support for either side would result in accusation of meddling in another country’s affairs, undermining Russia’s own perceived moral high ground from which it often sermonises. The other, according to a diplomatic source, stated that Brexit was in fact contrary to realistic interests of Russian foreign policy. For Russian diplomats, empirical evidence suggests that an unfavourable but predictable status quo is preferable to chaos and uncertainty.

May 2016: French journalists translate Dmitry Kiselyov's segment on "Eurosceptics" in France. Source: YouTube / LePetitJournal.Yes, Russia does exchange favours with anti-establishment figures on all extremes of the political spectrum in Europe — the National Front loan in France is a well-documented case. But so far, this is the only concrete proof that Putin supports anti-European forces in Europe.

Instead, what we’re dealing with is more of a feedback loop than a definite strategy. European fringe leftists and Neo-Nazis project their own fantasies of a fair society and strong leadership onto Putin. German right-wingers praise Putin for his supposed hard stance on Islamism, while unaware of a Russian region where sharia law is all but officially implemented and polygamy encouraged. Leftists see Putin as a counterweight to globalisation and crony capitalism — ignoring (willfully or otherwise) the corporatist nature of the Russian state. Italian secessionists from Lega Nord support the “self-determination of the Crimean people”, unaware than even a fraction of their claims for Padanian independence would land them in prison on extremism charges in Russia.

As soon as these fellow travellers say something nice about Russia and Putin — out of ignorance and naivety about the true nature of the state and the leader they admire — they are noticed in Moscow, invited to conferences and roundtables, and receive coveted airtime on RT and Russian domestic channels where they are paraded for propaganda purposes.

But that’s as far as support goes. Yes, Russia exploits cracks in the facade of the western establishment — but only because these cracks already existed, independent of any Russian influence.

What’s your evidence

The media’s case that Trump is colluding with Putin rests on several arguments, none of which hold much water.

The most persistent is that Paul Manafort, who is now Trump’s current campaign chief, ran the 2006 parliamentary campaign for Ukraine’s Party of Regions, a party led by pro-Moscow politician Viktor Yanukovych, now ousted and exiled in Russia. As Mustafa Nayem, the journalist whose Facebook post in late 2013 sparked the Euromaidan protests, explains in his 2007 investigation, Manafort was invited as a campaign manager by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Manafort rebranded the Party of Regions campaign in the style of Republican primaries, culminating in a theatrical party convention reminiscent of the 2004 RNC.

While the Manafort-Yanukovych connection is factually true, a source close to the 2006 race says Yanukovych’s campaign was actively sabotaged from Moscow on the grounds that Yanukovych relied on American political consultants, who are by their nature omnivorous. As Russia Without BS, an incisive Russia-watching blog, correctly points out, one of Mitt Romney’s top aides also lobbied for Yanukovych’s party. Does that make Romney a Putin shill? Probably not. Tim Allan, Tony Blair’s former aide, owns Portland Communications, a London PR firm subcontracted by Ketchum to represent Russian interests abroad. International PR and lobbying is a notoriously unscrupulous business. UK and American firms have over the years represented dictatorial regimes the world over, and criticised for it, although the criticism is mostly focused on the moral qualities of the trade, not its threat to national security.

Painting Russia as a global villain and Putin a nefarious and omnipotent puppetmaster is exactly the image he is aiming for. The plan to “improve Russia’s image abroad” by channelling millions of petrodollars into western PR firms has been a resound failure — Russia’s image is at all-time low since the Cold War. not even the most unscrupulous PR establishments will take on Russia as a client after Ukraine. So the global villain it is, and the keyword here is “global”. Putin’s unwitting public representatives are the pundits and politicians who are now doing what he himself has been doing for years now: blame outside forces for own failures.

Conspiratorial thinking defines Russian political discourse and provides much fodder for parody. It’s bizarre watching the US establishment fall into the trap some of them have been criticising Russia for over the past decade.

The same goes for Trump’s supposed Russian connections. If he’s so entrenched, argues Julia Ioffe in Foreign Policy, why isn’t there a single Trump Tower in Russia? The early 2000s oil boom bestowed many towering monuments to bad taste on Moscow, but none of them are Trump’s. Which means that, despite 30 years of trying, the Republican presidential nominee still hasn’t learned which hands to shake. Where Trump has failed repeatedly, many other international businesses and networks are thriving; none seems to cast Christopher J. Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Worldwide, as a Putin stooge for having 17 Hilton hotels in Russia.

While Trump does indeed have a sizable Russian clientele (or at least brags that he does), the idea that his empire is propped up by “oligarchs close to Putin” is a bit of a stretch. Putin’s inner circle is tight, and Azerbaijani-Russian businessman Aras Agalarov, with whom Trump shook hands cordially at a meeting which Putin snubbed, doesn’t belong there. Many, not just Trump, have done business with Russia, including Hillary Clinton. Whom, in an ironic twist, is presented on RT as the corrupt candidate for taking Russian money.

Yes, Trump has said nice things about Putin. But he also literally compared Russia to ISIS in an attack ad and promised to shoot down Russian aircraft (causing a minor uproar among Russian pundits who felt “betrayed”). Yet proponents of the “Putin’s agent” theory choose to ignore this in a peculiar case of Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. Russia has been likened to an ill-behaved child before, demanding attention and telling grown-ups to leave her alone at the same time, throwing tantrums and upsetting apple carts when things don’t go her way. Trump is an angsty teenager: he’ll say whatever is “anti-mainstream” at the moment. The worst parental strategy is to indulge.

Russian media’s pro-Trump slant is largely opportunistic. The only thing that matters is that he is anti-Hillary. Had it been someone else, they’d praise them

Beyond superficial comparisons, however, there is a fundamental difference (one of many) between Putin and Trump. Putin is extremely legalistic in his approach. He has build a complex facade of democracy, complete with regular (albeit rigged) elections, a parliament (with both chambers completely subservient to the executive branch) and a galaxy of GONGOs that tirelessly work at emulating a functioning society. Yes, both the Russian Duma and the Federation Council are little more than overhyped rubber-stampers, signing whatever bill Putin’s office forces on them. Yet it’s very important for Putin to appear within the bounds of the law (that he writes himself). Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly demonstrated his scant regard for laws and a very vague understanding of what laws, norms, agreements and pledges actually mean.

Another argument goes that “Putin has thrown the weight of his propaganda machine behind Trump”. Indeed, the Trumpist frenzy on Russian TV goes to such lengths that channels engage in fabricating pro-Trump vox-pops. But how is Russian domestic coverage of the US elections race of any consequence to US voters? Yes, RT, which is aimed at foreign audiences, does cover Trump, although RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan seems to favour Sanders more. And anyway, RT’s actual footprint, not self-aggrandised or elevated through alarmist statements, is too small to be of any significant influence on the outcome of the race.

Russia’s domestic TV coverage of Trump is not so much pro-Trump as anti-Hillary, who is widely seen in Russia as an adversary. Putin’s rivalry with Clinton dates back to 2011 when he accused the US State Department of fomenting protests against election fraud. TV channels simply take Putin’s cue and blast Clinton and praise Trump, encouraged by the surprisingly persistent “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic and in a bid to win favours from the presidential administration, whose deputy head micromanages media.

Thus, Russian media’s pro-Trump slant is largely opportunistic. The only thing that matters is that he is anti-Hillary. Had it been someone else, they’d praise them. As Mikhail Zygar, former chief editor of TV Dozhd and author of the seminal expose All The Kremlin’s Men, points out in Politico, in the early days of the US presidential race, when Jeb Bush was still a viable contender, a retired senior Kremlin official went to meet Bush.

Trump, in other words, is another weakness that Russia exploits — he’s a bug, not a feature. But the issues of US domestic politics that gave birth to the Trump phenomenon are entirely independent from Russia and had existed before Russia saw an opportunity to exploit them for propaganda purposes at home. Trump is not a Russian invention. He’s the result of decades of mismanagement that has led to disenchantment for many American people, which he is now feeding off and amplifying through the gargantuan echo chamber of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. Nor he is a Russian agent of influence. Casting him as such is a reductionist, desperate tactic that is bound to fail to convince any electorate.

The irony of top US officials and media accusing Russia of trying to influence the outcome of a highly contested US presidential race has not escaped many Russian observers. That’s precisely what Putin, pro-Kremlin think tanks and media have been doing for the past five years — accuse the US of shoving grit in the Russian machine, whether it’s mass anti-Putin protests or potholes. The machinations of the US state department is such a pervasive propaganda trope on Russian TV that there are now more memes lampooning it than actual references.

Conspiratorial thinking defines Russian political discourse and provides much fodder for parody. It’s bizarre watching the US establishment fall into the trap some of them have been criticising Russia for over the past decade.

About the authors

Alexey Kovalev is an independent journalist living and working in Moscow. Follow him on Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev.

Ilya Yablokov teaches Russian politics, history and media at the University of Leeds. His research interests include conspiracy theories, nation building and politics in post-Soviet Russia, the history of post-Soviet journalism and international broadcasting. His article ‘Conspiracy Theories as a Russian Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today’ has recently been published in Politics. He tweets @ilya_yablokov.


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