Trump: Putin’s best frenemy

Trump makes Russia feel great again.

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Trump smiles after making what he said was a major announcement, that he''d abide by the election results if he won, to supporters at a camp
"The ideological proximity of Trump and Putin shouldn't fool anyone," says Leonid Ragozin [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Donald Trump has been proclaimed an honorary Cossack in St Petersburg. Russia Today editor Margarita Simonyan is driving around Moscow in a car decorated with an American flag, and the crypto-fascist ideologist of Russian neo-imperialism, Aleksandr Dugin, has called for dumping anti-Americanism now that Trump has won. Russia has been rooting for the US president-elect throughout the campaign, so naturally, it is now celebrating his victory.

But it doesn’t mean that we are in for an era of reset and reconciliation between the US and Russia. Putin needs Trump not as a friend but as an ideal enemy, who will help him to mobilise his constituency and keep domestic opposition at bay.

Looking for a cartoonish enemy

Yes – at the beginning, it will look like the start of a beautiful friendship. Putin won’t be himself if he doesn’t try and dupe Trump into concessions on Ukraine and Syria. In exchange, he might hand over Edward Snowden to the US. He will have no qualms about it because he views Snowden as a traitor who is now biting the hand that feeds him by openly criticising internet censorship in Russia.

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But ultimately the Kremlin has other designs for Trump. The pillar that supports the political regime in Russia is the besieged fortress mentality; it is natural for a people who have seen nothing but misery and genocide for most of the previous century.

To maintain this worldview, it’s vital to have a powerful enemy that attacks Russian interests across the globe, an omnipotent alien force which ordinary Russians can blame for their misfortunes and bleak, unhappy life.

Apart from coming across as cynical and ruthless, the enemy should be suitably cartoonish and capable of feeding Russian propaganda with ridiculous gaffes and bizarre escapades. George W Bush suited this description ideally. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was problematic – too clever, too cautious and surrounded by people who actually understand what modern Russia is. Obama was hard to hate.

Now Trump is even better than Bush. Rude and ruthless, but also clueless on so many issues, self-contradicting, mind-bogglingly disingenuous – he is an epitome of an American oligarch. To someone who grew up in the USSR, Trump is a twin brother of “Mister Twister, ex-minister“, a character from a Soviet children’s poem by Samuil Marshak, who satirised American capitalism in the 1930s. Millions of Russians still remember it by heart. Trump is a walking caricature of America, a gift to the Russian propaganda machine which the Kremlin couldn’t even dream of.

The ideological proximity of Trump and Putin shouldn’t fool anyone. Yes, they are both members of the global populist movement that has almost completely erased the 20th-century left-right division. They also have very similar constituencies.

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In the past week, I’ve driven 3,000 kilometres through the Midwest swing states, talking to Trump supporters in small towns and villages. The parallels with Russia are striking. Just like Putin’s, Trump’s constituency comprised those who have lost in the process of globalisation and liberalisation, who find it hard to live in this new strange world and compete with those who are better fit for it.

By voting for Trump or Putin, they want to rein in time, make it move slower so they can catch up with those who they see as bigmouth upstarts getting money for nothing.

The term “silent majority”, which Trump supporters are so fond of using, evokes the memory of the “aggressively obedient majority” – a 1990s term describing those Russians who didn’t accept democratic changes and paved the way for the advent of Putin.

A Putin-Trump symbiosis

But the fact that the two politicians lead similar constituencies doesn’t mean that they won’t hate each other. Quite the opposite: They will enjoy mutual hatred. They will feed off it in a happy, political symbiosis.

Putin will love to hate Trump in the same way he loves to hate East European nationalists who might be outwardly anti-Russian, but really appear on the same side of the global political barricade as the Kremlin. Russian TV propaganda takes an utmost pleasure in circulating Russophobic statements by Ukrainian, Baltic and Polish nationalists. They help prove that Russia is surrounded by enemies who will strike as soon as it becomes weak and disunited.

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But the Kremlin has a major problem with genuine liberals in these countries when they come to power. This is why in Ukraine the pro-Russian Party of Regions was funding the vehemently Russophobic Svoboda party, according to recently published fiscal documents.

A Ukraine engulfed in archaic nationalism and Russophobia will never become a successful alternative to Putin’s Russia, it would never be a better place for Russian-speakers to live than Russia itself. A successful and liberal Ukraine, on the other hand, presents an existential risk for Putin’s regime, which is why it decided to start a war there in 2014.

The other benefit of Trump and his likes in other countries, say Brexiteers in Britain, is that they create internal strife, which weakens the West and distracts everyone’s attention from what Russia is doing, while at the same time allows the Kremlin to present Russia as an island of stability to TV audiences at home. They also help to undermine Western supranational institutions, such as the EU and NATO, giving Russia free reign in its neighbourhood.

Finally, a billionaire who was extremely reluctant to disclose his tax returns is extremely unlikely to go after the Western assets of his fellow billionaires in the Kremlin, thus greatly reducing the risk of regime change in Russia.

For Putin and his entourage, Trump is not an extravagant and experimental choice. It’s a conservative choice driven by the same kind of thinking that made Americans vote for Trump. It takes the world back into the good old Cold War times, when years of arms race and proxy wars were alternated with grandiose summits and nuclear treaties. It makes Russia feel great again.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.