Vladimir Putin's entourage cheered the outcome of the U.S. election – until they saw exactly what they were dealing with.
In 2016, a senior Russian official explained to a group of visiting foreigners why the government had decided not to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yes, it was a turning point in Russian history, he argued, and, yes, President Vladimir Putin sees today’s Russia as a successor to both the tsars and the Bolsheviks. But celebrating a revolution would send the wrong message to society. The Kremlin today is staunchly opposed to “regime change,” the visitors were told, and thus skittish about eulogizing 1917. It plans to use the centenary, instead, to draw attention to the catastrophic consequences of resorting to revolution to solve social and political problems.
The last thing the Russian government expected was that 2017 would bring it face to face not with a revolution of the past but with a revolution of the present — the radical regime change taking place in the United States as a result of the electoral victory of Donald Trump. It is Trump’s electoral revolution that has captured the imagination, and fanned the fears, of Russian elites today.
The search for a key to Trump’s mind-boggling and miscellaneous gusher of policy directives has tended to focus on his disturbingly erratic, vindictive, simplistic, narcissistic, insecure, and occasionally delusional personality, due exception being made for those conspiracy theorists who treat him as a kind of Manchurian candidate or sock puppet of the Kremlin. What most observers have been late to recognize is the extent to which, behind his mask as a showman, Trump views himself as a revolutionary insurgent with a mission to dismantle America’s “old regime.”
Trump’s tactics certainly belong to the classic revolutionary playbook. His shock-and-awe style of executive action is designed to rattle Congress, catch his opponents unprepared, and incite his base to wage war on the establishment. The extreme polarization he deliberately foments allows him to fend off an opportunistic alliance of the Republican elite with the Democratic Party in defense of the constitutional system, ensuring that protests will be largely impotent. In the words of White House strategist-in-chief Stephen Bannon, Trump is positioning himself as the global leader of an anti-global movement that is anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-liberal, and nationalistic. “What we are witnessing now,” Bannon told the Washington Post, “is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes itself.”
Russian policymakers, obsessed as they are with the fear of “color revolutions,” may understand better than Americans and Europeans the radical nature of the political change that has descended on Washington. Indeed, when it comes to the ongoing Trump revolution, Russian policymakers are in much the same position as the German General Staff one century ago. In 1917, the German government concluded that the best hope for a German victory in World War I was for a revolution to erupt in Russia. It thus allowed some of the leaders of the Bolshevik party, Lenin among them, to pass through Germany and make their way back to Russia. The hope was that a revolution in Russia would pull the country out of the war — and the plan worked. But by the beginning of 1918, the German government started to fear that the virus of revolution that it had surreptitiously help spread to Russia might circle back calamitously to Germany itself.
Our conversations with Russian policymakers and experts indicate they are starting to have similar fears and doubts today.
There is no way of knowing if Russian interference contributed decisively to Trump’s upset victory. But it’s fair to say that the Kremlin viewed the outcome as a divine gift. Since at least 2011-2012, when Russia witnessed widespread popular protests, and particularly after the Ukrainian Maidan uprising — events that elicited heartfelt praise and encouragement from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Russia’s leadership had been convinced that her election would spell disaster for Russia and that it might even lead to war. So Russians did what they could to prevent Clinton from getting into the White House. But while they welcomed her defeat, they were wholly unprepared for the ensuing regime change in Washington.
Now that Trump is in power, political elites in Moscow have stopped cheering. They recognize that Russia’s position has become abruptly and agonizingly complex.
It’s true that Trump’s accession opens up the possibility of “normalizing” Russia’s relations with the West, beginning with a reduction or even elimination of sanctions. It also validates many of Russia’s ideological criticisms of the liberal order and may perhaps foreshadow policy reversals that Moscow has long hoped for: from Washington’s disengagement from the Ukraine crisis to its dissolution of the Cold War Western alliance. Russians also celebrate Trump’s unfiltered stream-of-consciousness diatribes as signaling a welcome end to America’s hypocrisy and condescension.
But Trump’s revolution is also ushering in a period of turmoil and uncertainty, including the likelihood of self-defeating trade wars. Still traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s present leadership has no appetite for global instability.
With Trump in the White House, moreover, Putin has lost his monopoly over geopolitical unpredictability. The Kremlin’s ability to shock the world by taking the initiative and trashing ordinary international rules and customs has allowed Russia to play an oversized international role and to punch above its weight. Putin now has to share the capacity to keep the world off balance with a new American president vastly more powerful than himself. More world leaders are watching anxiously to discover what Trump will do next than are worrying about what Putin will do next. Meanwhile, using anti-Americanism as an ideological crutch has become much more dubious now that the American electorate has chosen as their president a man publicly derided as “Putin’s puppet.”
What the Kremlin fears most today is that Trump may be ousted or even killed. His ouster, Kremlin insiders argue, is bound to unleash a virulent and bipartisan anti-Russian campaign in Washington. Oddly, therefore, Putin has become a hostage to Trump’s survival and success. This has seriously restricted Russia’s geopolitical options. The Kremlin is perfectly aware that Democrats want to use Russia to discredit and possibly impeach Trump while Republican elites want to use Russia to deflate and discipline Trump. The Russian government fears not only Trump’s downfall, of course, but also the possibility that he could opportunistically switch to a tough anti-Moscow line in order to make peace with hawkish Republican leaders in Congress.
It is emblematic that, in their first telephone call, Putin refused to press Trump on lifting the sanctions or on America’s discontinuing support for Kiev. Moscow has also chosen to ignore some harsh anti-Russian statements issued by certain members of the new administration. The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine might seem like a counterexample, but the Kremlin swears that the Petro Poroshenko government in Kiev is the guilty party, aiming at getting the attention of anti-Russian U.S. Congress members and thereby providing a potent argument against Trump’s appeasement of Putin. In any case, Russia has been trying to find ways to accommodate the U.S. president, including, for example, echoing the White House’s denials that Ambassador Sergei Kislyak discussed sanctions with Michael Flynn before Trump’s inauguration as well as announcing plans to reconsider Trump’s demand to set up safe zones inside Syria—a proposal that was initially rejected by the Russians.
Trump’s presidency has also complicated Moscow’s relations with China and Iran. Moscow is interested in normalization with the West but not at the cost of joining a Washington-led anti-China coalition, which Trump seems insistent on creating. Moreover, Putin’s Russia hosts up to 20 million Muslims and therefore cannot indulge in the radical anti-Islam rhetoric adopted by Trump.
What is especially dangerous from the Kremlin’s perspective is that certain nationalistic circles in Russia are falling in love with Trump’s insurrectionary approach. In January, for the first time since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin was not the most frequently cited name in the Russian media; Trump was. And although most of Trump’s Russian admirers, such as Alexander Dugin, are loyal to Putin personally, they also dream of purging the globalist elites who occupy the rooms adjoining their president’s.
Anyone who spends any time in Moscow will quickly discover that ordinary Russians, in contrast with a majority of Europeans, feel surprisingly positive about Trump. One reason is that they are exhausted at Russia’s confrontation with the West. Another is that they share Trump’s cynical, borderline apocalyptic view of international politics. Like Trump, they never believed in win-win politics in the first place.
Most interesting of all, they readily compare Trump to an early Boris Yeltsin — impulsive, charismatic, trusting only his family, and ready to bomb the parliament if that works to cement his hold on power. The problem for the Kremlin is that Yeltsin was a revolutionary leader and Putin has decided to make 2017 a year for deploring, not celebrating, revolutions.