Russia and the new sheriff

Bronze sculptures of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush
Presidential visions: Vladimir Putin as agent 007 and George W. Bush in cowboy dress were done in bronze by Russian sculptor Oleg Kukushkin (source: dpa)

Back in 2000, people were asking “who is Mr. Putin?” In 2016, the entire world, including Vladimir Putin himself, is wondering “who is Donald Trump?” In Russia, one of the most popular answers is that, in some way, he is an American version of Mr. Putin.

Most Russians, including representatives of the political, economic and intellectual elites, do not understand the mechanisms and rules of Western politics. They tend to explain events by extrapolating views about their own country: if this is how we do it, this is how they do it.

Many interpreted Mr. Trump’s victory as a chance to heal an old trauma – an absence of Western leadership, which forced Mr. Putin’s Russia to fill the world vacuum through its own efforts. People are ready to view the United States president-elect as a strong leader, if not the big chief, who will restore justice on a global scale and accord Russia an honorable place within a new world order. The role model is none other than Mr. Putin. It is worth taking a closer look at what Russians think it takes to be him.

Perhaps the most important attribute of a strong leader is to be predictable and unpredictable at the same time. This embodies the contradiction of Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous formula: “It is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.”

The leader is predictable in the sense of being invulnerable to opponents and critics, always choosing the right policy course, never making mistakes and always winning (hence the popularity of the “Putin fooled everyone again” meme in Russia). A leader is unpredictable by refusing to be bound by traditions, rules and ethical standards, even if he invokes them publicly. His decisions are always unexpected, and his policy course can twist in any direction and still remain the only true one.

The question is whether Mr. Trump manages to become predictable over time as Mr. Putin did

To Russians today, Donald Trump looks like a winner. His sudden burst onto the political scene and populist appeal make it easy to draw parallels with Vladimir Putin’s victory in 2000. The question is whether Mr. Trump manages to become predictable over time as Mr. Putin did. This could require a radical alteration of the entire U.S constitutional system of checks and balances, if not its complete abandonment.

Such a scenario appears unlikely, especially given the president-elect’s recent conciliatory tone and backpedaling from many of his toughest campaign promises. Yet, like Mr. Trump’s own supporters, Russians expect radical changes in the American system and will be disappointed with anything less.

Risk factor

Unpredictability could become the strong suit of Donald Trump’s presidency. On outside appearances, the president-elect appears to be clueless about how to proceed – especially in foreign policy, which is vital to Russia. With Hillary Clinton, everything was predictable: she would have tried to contain and frustrate Russia, but would not dare to inflict serious harm.

President Trump is another story. Why should he not reverse his promises of a softer policy toward Moscow when he is already shifting ground on more important domestic issues? Not surprisingly, Russian politicians who were elated about the U.S. election result now warn against premature applause. Mr. Trump still has to make his key foreign policy and defense appointments. If he chooses some of the more hawkish candidates under discussion – Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and especially John R. Bolton, who is not regarded fondly in Moscow – disillusionment will be swift.

When two tough guys meet, they are less likely to make nice than to try and find out which one is tougher

This is probably the main risk for U.S.-Russian relations. We do not know whether Mr. Trump will turn out to be the tough guy everyone expects in Russia. But if he does, it may be better to keep one’s head down. When two tough guys meet, they are less likely to make nice than to try and find out which one is tougher.

The existence of such a risk will inevitably exert a strong influence on Russia’s domestic politics, even though the causality arrow usually runs the opposite way – from domestic politics to foreign policy. Any damage to Mr. Putin’s image as the toughest guy on the planet, any defeat, retreat or compromise that he may be forced to accept, could potentially rock a country that is already much less stable than it wishes to appear.

Consequently, Russians will be nervously monitoring Mr. Trump’s every step. Whether the new American president acts intentionally or not, wherever he makes a move – on Russia or Mr. Putin personally, or in Iran, China, the European Union, NATO or the United Nations – Russia will react and even overreact.

It is possible that this dynamic has already begun. The sensational arrest of Alexei Ulyukaev, Russia’s minister of economic development who had the reputation of being a dangerous “Westerner” (he speaks English) and a “liberal” (he is good with numbers), is being interpreted as a sign that the Kremlin is closing its ranks.

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