We don’t know how effective Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts were to get President Trump elected. We don’t know whether leaked documents, disinformation campaigns, or actual Russian agents joined forces with Trump to sink Hillary Clinton. But the evidence is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Putin expressed a preference.
Why? The easy answer is Clinton’s tough line on Russia as a senator and secretary of state and her tough talk during the campaign. Many have also suggested that, because Putin blamed Clinton personally for supporting 2011 protests against his government, he harbored a thirst for vengeance.
A more complete explanation would look to the difference between what Clinton has represented throughout her political life, and what Trump argued for — a series of ideals he has since deserted. Where Clinton long argued that “efforts to ensure democracy and human rights are … central to our foreign policy objectives this century,” and pushed for war over this conviction in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, Trump’s foreign-policy vision was much closer to Putin’s: The GOP nominee contended that economic and security interests, not liberal ideals, should set the U.S. agenda.
We can turn back to Yugoslavia to find the roots of Putin’s loathing toward Clinton and her ideology. It was during NATO’s 1999 air campaign over Kosovo that then-President Bill Clinton helped to inaugurate the current era of militant humanitarianism (that is, humanitarian intervention at the point of a gun). In bombing Kosovo, Clinton intended to halt violence at the hands of Serb nationalists led by Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević. But by undertaking military action in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, Clinton infuriated the Russian leadership.
The Kosovo intervention realigned Putin’s priorities. In the winter of 2000, after Putin had become president, Russia adopted a new national security concept that silenced previous calls for partnership with the West. Instead, Russia would “deal with America’s unilateralism” by “consolidating its position as one of the great powers and influential centers in the world.” Celeste Wallander, a Harvard scholar who would become one of President Barack Obama’s advisers on Russia, wrote after the new policy’s adoption that Russia’s tougher posture “is clearly related to assessments after Kosovo.” Since then, Putin has consistently opposed U.S. humanitarian wars, seeing in them not high ideals but unwarranted aggression.
One reason that Putin found his priorities so upended by America’s involvement in Yugoslavia was that it contradicted the basic logic of a post-Cold War order on which Russia was forced to depend. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was much diminished and relied on Western forbearance to maintain internal stability and its regional power position. Yet by claiming a right to intervene abroad for humanitarian reasons, the United States was asserting that sovereign governments had to answer to it for their domestic activities, effectively lording its newfound hegemony over Russia and everyone else. If roles were reversed, American leaders would never agree to such conditions. The intervention also caught Russia by surprise, humiliating European-leaning liberals there and emboldening hard-liners. Just weeks after the bombing, Putin was announced as Boris Yeltsin’s successor and, to the delight of hawks smarting at Western provocations, immediately began flexing military muscle in Chechnya.
Militant humanitarian interventions in Iraq and Libya — which Hillary Clinton and other policymakers backed for a combination of reasons, humanitarian ones prominent among them — also proved destabilizing and were themselves disasters from the standpoints of human welfare. Each further degraded the norms of the world order that Russia thought existed after the Iron Curtain came down.
Of course, Putin does not oppose militant humanitarianism for idealistic reasons. He, too, claims to be a militant humanitarian. In justifying Russian policies toward Syria and Ukraine, Putin and his supporters have explicitly relied on arguments the Clinton administration used in Kosovo. If NATO can stumble into Yugoslavia’s civil war, why can’t Russia do the same in Syria? Indeed, Russia is Syria’s ally, sworn by treaty to protect its government. And if Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds was a reason to violently unseat him from power, then why shouldn’t Russia protect persecuted ethnic Russians, as it has claimed to do in Georgia and Ukraine? If there is a principled difference between the Clinton and Putin approaches to militant humanitarianism, it is that the latter is essentially conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo or restore the status quo ante, and the former is transformative, attempting to build new states along lines preferred by U.S. politicians and strategists.
When Putin asserts humanitarian and treaty rights to use force, Americans of all parties condemn him as a liar, a neo-imperialist and a dangerous agent of instability. Perhaps this is true. But Washington, too, advocated a war in Iraq that cost at least 100,000 civilian lives and an intervention in Libya on false pretenses. No wonder Putin sees Americans as sanctimonious when they berate him for facilitating the butchery in Syria.
The similarities in the government’s approaches are real: In Kosovo and in Georgia, the overmatched and nonthreatening forces of minor states were attacked by major foreign powers claiming humanitarian justification. But while Russia’s fight with Georgia, which had for years been at war with pro-Russian separatists in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, was “totally unacceptable,” an official U.S. news agency drips honey about “love for Clintons” in Kosovo. Years on, the Western press continues to cheer humanitarian triumph in the Balkans. Again, how would Americans would feel if our national roles were reversed with Russia?
Given the hypocrisies underlying militant humanitarianism, it’s obvious why Putin would oppose Hillary Clinton as president of the United States. Her doctrine sought to make the world a better place, but its effect was to enforce her own preferences through the profligate deployment of U.S. military power.
With Trump, the story was supposed to be different: He favored rapprochement over what he saw as pointless confrontation. National wealth and security from Islamist violence were supposed to replace liberal values as the principal motivations of U.S. foreign policy. But then Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the nerve agent sarin on civilians again. Suddenly it was important to Trump that the Syrian government was killing “beautiful little babies,” so the president gave an order this month to retaliate against the Syrian regime, showing himself to be, like Clinton, a militant humanitarian. Again Putin finds himself staring down an American leader who thinks he has the right to change the world.
Trump’s heartless rejection of Syrian refugees indicates that he doesn’t really care about their suffering, their future, or who governs them. He is a militant humanitarian in Putin’s mold rather than Clinton’s, using moral argument not to justify idealistic transformation but as another weapon in the contest for power, security and glory among nations — and for domestic support. For Putin, humanitarianism has been a powerful propaganda tool, helping to maintain his image among many Russians and allies as a righteous leader holding the line against Western encroachment. The same has been true for Trump, whose Syria strike was greeted at home with fulsome praise.
In a perverse way, Trump’s turn to militant humanitarianism is Clinton’s victory. She may have lost the election, but her ideology lives on, a bipartisan guide to American foreign policy. But Putin may recognize that Trump’s foreign policy is no less compatible than anticipated. After all, Russia’s president understands as well as anyone what a beneficent bombing run can do for good ratings.