By Carol J. Williams
It’s easy to see what it is about Vladimir Putin that impresses Donald Trump.
The Russian president has made more than a slogan of his aim to make his country great again. He’s grabbed territory in Ukraine and Georgia that was lost in the Soviet Union’s collapse. He’s sent warships and bombers to Syria to rescue his key Middle East ally, President Bashar Assad, from imminent defeat by Islamic State extremists and U.S.-backed rebels. And Putin defiantly brushes off the international censure and sanctions that have followed his aggressions, casting the reprimands as little more than pin pricks by adversaries who are intent on turning Russia’s natural allies against him.
Putin has rolled back Russian media from the feisty watchdogs of political power that emerged after the demise of communist-era censorship, allowing Kremlin spin doctors to portray the current economic crisis as a necessary cost of resisting U.S. encroachment into Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. The government-controlled narrative, not beholden to truth or reality, heralds a resurgent Russia that is recovering its clout in the world as well as its lost territory. Trump, who rejects unflattering media accounts as deliberate lies for which journalists should be sued, has to be envious of the Kremlin leader’s freedom from the pesky restraints of a First Amendment and fact-checking post-mortems on his public statements.
The Kremlin leader has exercised broad power to contain the Islamic insurgency that has roiled the southern Caucasus region since the post-Soviet easing of religious suppression. Where Trump faces accusations of racism and disregard for constitutional and human rights over his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Putin’s imposition of a virtual police state to restrict the movements of Chechens, Dagestanis and other Muslim Russian citizens is applauded by the same support base of whites, nationalists and Orthodox Christians that has rallied to his mission to recover Russia’s imperial glory.
Putin has also effectively eliminated political challengers. Unlike the instruments at Trump’s disposal to denigrate his rivals – name-calling and mockery – Putin has a network of regional government, parliamentary and judicial loyalists who can neutralize opponents by criminalizing their political activity, subjecting them to arrest, dispossession, even contract killings.
What Trump seems to admire about Putin is his unfettered latitude to steer Russia on any course he desires, a power that might be more accurately described as autocracy.
Putin, meanwhile, sees much that he likes about Trump as well.
The Republican billionaire advocates leaving the deadly territorial disputes in the former Soviet space to Russia and its neighbors to sort out. Trump has even called for the United States to reduce its role in NATO – the powerful military alliance at the heart of what Putin casts as a Western plot to impoverish and diminish Russia.
Increasingly since the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian warplanes have been buzzing NATO exercises and the sovereign airspace of former Soviet republics that are now members of the U.S.-led alliance. That has sown fear among the peoples of Latvia and Estonia that Putin might be angling to recover the Baltic states on the pretext of defending their Russian minorities from alleged mistreatment under independent governments.
Trump’s nonintervention policy and any move he might make as president to back away from pledges to defend NATO states could be interpreted by the Kremlin as U.S. acquiescence to a whispered “Yalta II” agreement — a new East-West division of influence in Eurasia.
Likewise, Trump’s threats to cut U.S. military support for Japanese and South Korean allies would give Putin a freer hand in the Western Pacific, where Russian postwar occupation of Japanese islands and disputes over fishing and drilling rights have simmered among the Asian neighbors for decades.
Putin has wisely said little about such welcome Trump proposals, likely to avoid appearing too eager for the Republican frontrunner to ascend to the White House. If Russia wants it, voters might think twice.
When Putin four months ago alluded to Trump as “very talented” and the “absolute leader” in the race for the U.S. presidency, Trump reveled in the praise and presented it as evidence that his victory in November would usher in a better phase of U.S.-Russian relations.
“If Putin respects me, and if Putin wants to call me brilliant and other things that he said which were, frankly, very nice, I’ll accept that and I’ll accept that on behalf of our country,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview in which he also denied there was any proof of claims that Putin has had critics murdered.
What gets short shrift in discussion of the Trump-Putin flirtation is that the two champions of making their countries great again cannot both succeed. And the advantage in prevailing at the other’s expense lies on the authoritarian side of the East-West divide.
If a President Trump were to turn a blind eye to Russian incursion into coveted foreign turf, the NATO alliance would collapse, inflicting new divides between the United States and its allies and undermining the trade and security relationships that help protect the developed world from another resurgent force: terrorism.