Skip to main content

To understand why Mr. Putin is rooting for the American billionaire, you have to follow the money – and not just Mr. Trump’s alleged links to Russian businesses.ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP / Getty Images

Vladimir Putin likes the idea of Donald Trump as president of the United States. But what the Kremlin wants most from the U.S. election is chaos.

Analysts and diplomats in the Russian capital say undermining U.S. democracy – thus weakening the appeal of the country's soft power around the world – is the real goal of the Kremlin's efforts to influence the Nov. 8 election via the alleged hacking of Democratic National Committee e-mails, as well as the extensive coverage by Kremlin-friendly media of Mr. Trump's claims that the election is rigged against him.

"They would be happy to show that the situation in the U.S. is not ideal, that it is crumbling … that before giving lessons to Russia, they have to fix their own problems," said Sergey Utkin, head of foreign and security policy at the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Research.

America votes: Coverage of the 2016 U.S. election night

A discredited U.S. leadership – particularly in the event Mr. Trump carries through on his threat not to concede defeat if Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is declared the winner of the election – strengthens the Kremlin's hand in its showdowns with the West over Syria and Ukraine, and weakens the argument of those calling for political change in Russia itself.

An actual victory for Mr. Trump would be icing on Moscow's cake.

To understand why Mr. Putin is rooting for the American billionaire, you have to follow the money – and not just Mr. Trump's alleged links to Russian businesses.

The Kremlin, analysts here say, is running out of money fast, and needs to find a way to end the Western sanctions that were levelled against it in 2014 over its actions in Ukraine. Mr. Trump, they believe, may be the man to bring about the financial relief Moscow needs.

Not because the Kremlin is expecting he would immediately lift sanctions – though there have been reports that top Russian officials met with Mr. Trump's adviser Carter Page to discuss just that – but because a Trump victory is expected to shatter the unity of the West and send European governments looking elsewhere for leadership in the world.

"They like to think that if Trump wins, then there is no hope for unity in the West, and if something is bad for the West, then it is good for Russia," said Nikolai Petrov, an independent political analyst.

Two years ago, Russian troops were entering Crimea ahead of its annexation from Ukraine and the Kremlin was activating its separatist allies in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. At the time, Russia's Reserve Fund – largely accumulated during Mr. Putin's first decade in power when oil prices were frequently more than $100 (U.S.) a barrel and the domestic economy was growing – stood at nearly $90-billion.

Today, as oil prices linger below $50 a barrel and the economy contracts for a third consecutive year – all while Russia is pouring funds into Crimea, and waging war in faraway Syria – the Reserve Fund is worth just over $30-billion, having been depleted by $6-billion to cover overspending in August alone.

A draft budget submitted last week to Russia's parliament, the Duma, called for steep cuts to health services, education and even previously sacrosanct defence spending, which has risen in past years as Mr. Putin has modernized his country's army and deployed it abroad. Even still, Russia's Finance Ministry expects the Reserve Fund to be completely depleted some time next year, just ahead of presidential elections in 2018, when Mr. Putin is widely expected to run for another six-year term.

There's loud worry about the tightening finances, and talk that Mr. Putin may be forced to call an early vote to avoid having to campaign for re-election just as his government is going broke.

"Putin is demonstrating now that his time horizon is much longer than the 2018 election. That means he either needs to borrow money to finance until the [2018] election, or hold an early election," Mr. Petrov said. Borrowing abroad is currently very difficult under the sanctions targeting Russia's banking sector; hence the hope that a victory by Mr. Trump on Tuesday would shake up the international status quo in Russia's favour.

U.S. intelligence agencies have accused "Russia's senior-most officials" of ordering a hacking attack on the e-mail servers of the Democratic National Committee, a leak that damaged Ms. Clinton by revealing how the party's top figures opposed her only challenger for the nomination, Bernie Sanders.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist considered an expert on cyberwarfare, told The Globe and Mail that he considers the evidence connecting Russia to the DNC hack "quite strong." But a summer-long FBI investigation reportedly found no concrete proof of other ties between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. Mr. Utkin and Mr. Petrov both said that many of the allegations of Russian interference in the American vote are "hysteria."

The Kremlin denies any involvement in hacking the Democratic Committee e-mails, and Mr. Putin has scoffed at the idea that Mr. Trump is Moscow's choice in the race for the White House. He claims the narrative of Russia meddling in the U.S. election was "inserted into the public consciousness" by Ms. Clinton and her supporters.

"How is this done? First, they create an enemy in the form of Russia, and then they say that Trump is our preferred candidate. This is complete nonsense and totally absurd," Mr. Putin told a late October meeting of foreign-policy experts, adding that Russia would work with any president the American people elected.

But as he continued to speak, Mr. Putin abandoned his attempt to sound neutral. "I think there is some sense in his actions," the Russian President said of Mr. Trump. "I say this because in my view, he represents the interests of the sizable part of American society that is tired of the elites that have been in power for decades now."

Ironically, the drama unfolding in the U.S. election is following a script that often played out during disputed votes in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe over the past two decades.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was often the Kremlin that was crying foul and the U.S. that stood accused of trying to influence elections that Moscow considered its business to run. The Kremlin believes that U.S. meddling led to pro-Western revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine earlier this century, as well as election-time protests in Moscow five years ago.

(The original sin, in the minds of many here, was the intervention in Russia's 1996 election, when U.S. spin doctors were dispatched to prevent Boris Yeltsin from losing to Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. The idea of "managed democracy" – with the Kremlin guiding and limiting the public's choices – surfaced in Russia soon afterward.)

That history is now being played back through a fun-house mirror.

"This is a year where things ironically switched, that Russia is accused of meddling in an election. Usually, it's Russia accusing the West of meddling in an election," said Anissa Naouai, a host with RT, a Kremlin-owned news channel.

RT has made waves – and gained a new following among Mr. Trump's supporters – during the U.S. campaign by devoting plentiful air time to the Republican candidate's claims that the election is rigged against him. (Ms. Naouai points out that Western journalists have never shied away from pointing out flaws in Russia's democracy. "Maybe Russia and America are just becoming more similar.")

It's perhaps doubly satisfying to Mr. Putin that he's seen causing trouble for Ms. Clinton. During the 2011 protests in Moscow, Mr. Putin personally accused Ms. Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, of masterminding the demonstrations, saying she "set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal."

"This [history] is very important to understand [Mr. Putin's] mentality and his behaviour. He's focused on those events where the U.S. promoted regime change. Now, he can demonstrate that nobody is safe," Mr. Petrov said. "Putin will be very glad to get payback."

The script in Ukraine and elsewhere involved the U.S. throwing its diplomatic weight behind anti-Kremlin candidates, while independent media (including outlets that were funded by U.S. democracy-promotion programs) published revelations that undermined public confidence in their political systems.

The day after the election – in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and in Russia in 2011 – crowds came into the streets waving the colours of the opposition candidate, resulting in popular revolutions in the first three countries and a brief challenge to even Mr. Putin's grip on power. The Kremlin's political strategists call it the "colour-revolution scenario."

It's not much of a stretch to see Mr. Trump's insurgent run for the presidency – which is glowingly portrayed in state-run media here as a popular uprising by working-class Americans – as borrowing from the same playbook. Mr. Trump has repeatedly claimed (without the proof wielded by protesters in Ukraine and elsewhere) that the election is rigged. Some of his supporters have mused aloud about armed rebellion if Ms. Clinton is declared the winner.

"Whoever wins the U.S. election, the loser won't accept the result," Dmitry Kiselyov, a Putin confidante who hosts Russia's most-watched television newscast, gloated this week. "This isn't a coloured revolution yet. But it's funny."

Less evident than the schadenfreude is whether the Kremlin really wants to deal with a President Trump.

There's little question that Mr. Trump – who has praised Mr. Putin as a strong leader and asked "wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?" – starts off from a more pro-Russian outlook than any other White House contender in memory. From the Kremlin's standpoint, that makes him far-more malleable than Ms. Clinton, who would be expected to continue many of outgoing President Barack Obama's policies.

U.S.-Russia relations over Ukraine, Syria and other issues are so frosty that the current state of ties is frequently compared to Cold War times.

Mr. Trump's entourage also includes several figures with Kremlin links. His campaign manager (until he resigned in August as controversy about his Russian connections swirled) was Paul Manafort, a veteran political operative previously best known for managing the career of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 by protesters furious over his deference to Moscow.

Mr. Trump's main defence adviser is Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, a former head of the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, who more recently has been a regular guest on RT programs and who was infamously seated at the head table at an RT gala in Moscow, just two seats away from Mr. Putin.

Carter Page, a previously unknown Moscow-based businessman, was one of Mr. Trump's foreign-policy advisers until he took a leave from the campaign in September amid furor over his reported meetings with top Putin aides Igor Sechin and Sergei Ivanov to discuss the possible lifting of sanctions. (Mr. Page called the reports, which cited anonymous Western intelligence officials, "completely false.")

There also appear to be business connections between Mr. Trump and Russia. Though the Republican candidate has yet to open his tax records to public scrutiny, his son Donald Trump Jr. – who is executive vice-president of the Trump Organization – once told an audience that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets."

The suggestion that Mr. Trump listens to people like Gen. Flynn, Mr. Page and Mr. Manafort has led Kremlin-owned media to declare Mr. Trump the "peace candidate" in this race, in contrast with the "war-like, Russia-hating Hillary Clinton."

"Putin supports Trump, because Trump supports Putin's policies. Just that simple. You don't need a PhD in Russian Studies to understand it," Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, posted on his Twitter account this week.

Nonetheless, there are deep divisions in the Moscow foreign-policy community over whether four years of Mr. Trump in the White House would actually be good news for Russia. Top of any incoming U.S. administration's to-do list would be resolving the horrifying civil war in Syria, where Mr. Putin has deployed his country's air force to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. backs an array of anti-government militias. The risk of proxy war escalating into a direct conflict between nuclear-armed states was highlighted Oct. 17 by a near-miss in Syrian skies involving a Russian warplane supporting Mr. Assad's forces and a U.S. jet carrying out a bombing run against the Islamic State.

Next on the agenda would be Ukraine, where the U.S. and its allies are hoping the sanctions will force the Kremlin to abandon its support for separatists in the east of the country, and undo its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

After that come myriad other complicated issues – from climate change to combatting international crime – on which genuine co-operation between Washington and Moscow is both crucial and rare.

"Trump likes Russia, likes Putin, likes Putin's methods of foreign policy and so on. But I'm very careful and cautious about this because we must be cautious of populists, and Trump is a populist," said Valery Garbuzov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, a research centre funded by the Russian government.

While there was personal animosity between Mr. Putin and Ms. Clinton, Mr. Garbuzov said Ms. Clinton was seen as a politician whose behaviour could at least be predicted. A Trump presidency, meanwhile, could bring "chaos" to U.S. foreign policy. "For Russian interests, it would be better when there is a situation of stability in the U.S., a situation of predictability rather than unpredictability. An understanding of reality."

Some analysts believe that – regardless of who wins – Moscow has already achieved its main aim by fostering the impression of instability in the United States.

Mr. Trump's main gift to Mr. Putin and autocrats around the world may well be the impression he has created with his complaints that the U.S. system is rigged. If democracy in the United States is so dangerously broken, aren't Russians better off with the stability offered under Mr. Putin's authoritarian rule? It's a hammer Mr. Putin – who has led Russia as either president or prime minister since 1999 – can wield against his few remaining domestic opponents ahead of the 2018 elections. "Russia's domestic narrative is only strengthened by discrediting the American electoral process," said one Moscow-based Western diplomat.

Mr. Trump's claims that the system is rigged against him sound silly to those fighting for political change in Russia. "This can be used by Putin and Russian propaganda," said Dmitry Gudkov, who was the last anti-Putin MP in the 450-seat Duma until he lost his post in a September election. Mr. Gudkov, who said he was denied access to the media during the campaign, in which the only candidates' debate was cancelled, added that he could only dream of the kind of exposure Mr. Trump and his ideas have received during his run for the presidency. "I think he needs to come to Russia to understand exactly what a rigged election is."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe