MOSCOW — Is Donald Trump “our man?”
That’s the question that Komsomolskaya Pravda, a leading Russian tabloid, asked its readers on Wednesday, summing up a debate that has intrigued and exasperated readers from the Capitol Beltway to the Moscow Ring Road.
In the United States, Trump’s professed affinity for Vladimir Putin as a strong leader, and his offbeat statements, including a call on Russia to release the rest of Hillary Clinton’s emails after a hacking attack on the Democratic National Committee, prompted surprise and some breathless derision of him as the “Siberian candidate.”
That aspersion has been mocked in Russia as a throwback to Cold War rhetoric, and the Kremlin has hotly denied it favors a candidate in the U.S. elections. But Trump’s stated readiness to consider lifting sanctions, to tacitly accept the annexation of Crimea, andto reduce support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would all seem to be pluses for officials here.
Some are convinced the Kremlin has cast its vote.
“Absolutely, they’re for Trump,” said Aleksei Makarkin, a political analyst, noting expectations that Trump would craft a foreign policy more amenable to Moscow. Or, failing that, he added, at least make America weaker. “I don’t see many arguments for Clinton.”
And yet, while there is a general agreement here that there is little upside to a Clinton presidency, which would probably leave the icy relationship between Moscow and Washington in place, there is also no consensus that a Trump presidency would be much more than a roll of the dice.
“It sounds very attractive but it could end as a catastrophe for everyone,” one lawmaker in Russia’s upper house of parliament said this week of a potential Trump presidency, requesting anonymity to speak frankly about the U.S. elections. The problem? “He is unpredictable.”
Some of Russia’s more outspoken politicians, including the firebrand Duma deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky — whose general demeanor resembles Trump’s — have spoken warmly of Trump. Russian television has followed his campaign closely through the lens of an outsider fighting the system. But the loudest political voices don’t necessarily reflect the Kremlin’s, analysts said.
“Clearly the conservatives are pro-Trump, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the top people really want Trump,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor at large with Vedomosti, Russia’s main business newspaper. “It could be incredibly disruptive. Can you imagine if all the things he has said come true?”
Among those, he said, were suggestions by Trump that nuclear proliferation to Japan or other countries would not be against the interests of the United States. Or developments seen as working in Moscow’s favor, like a potential rift between the United States under Trump and Europe, that could have unforeseen consequences.
“I think that there are very few sane politicians of any kind, including Russians, who would actually want a Trump presidency,” Trudolyubov said. “But they are enjoying the spectacle of seeing an American candidate for president being called a foreign agent.”
More than a Trump presidency, the Kremlin may also just enjoy a competitive, bruising election cycle that would divide the American public and leave the winner exhausted. As Grigory Golosov, another Moscow-based political analyst, put it: “This campaign is a gift to the Russian media.”
For conservative members of the siloviki, or security apparatus, Trump’s stated foreign policy views offer an intriguing and “complete revolution with the foreign policy consensus in the United States,” said Dmitry Suslov, a professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics and program director at the Valdai Discussion Club. “Much of what he is saying really coincides with the Russian analysis of the world.”
But they have been disappointed before, he added, noting a promising relationship between Putin and President George W. Bush that began with a 2001 summit in Slovenia but then soured following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“The emerging consensus is not to have great expectations, but still to keep a preference with Trump,” Suslov said.
Trump’s detractors, some of them prominent voices in Russia’s foreign policy community, have focused primarily on his inconsistent disposition, arguing that suggestions he would mend relations with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine or Syria were just wishful thinking.
Igor Ivanov, the president of the Russian International Affairs Council, wrote last month that a “newcomer” can be harder to deal with: inconsistent, unpredictable, given to subjective and emotional decisions “that can be very hard to rectify later on.”
On Wednesday, Pavel Demidov, a professor at the Russian state MGIMO University, warned in a newspaper column that a “flighty and irascible populist who changes his mind three times a day” at the head of a nuclear superpower “may pose danger to the whole world and for Russia in particular.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russian officials in public statements have been reserved.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee in the Federation Council, told the Izvestia newspaper last week that under a Trump presidency, “a certain window of possibilities may naturally appear.” But not all those possibilities may be desirable, he added.
“The set of options is significantly wider” with Trump, he said. “Amazingly, they change the current situation both for the better and for the worse. Trump is not predictable enough.”