The inevitable Trumputin divorce
Why it is not meant to be for Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
After the inauguration of Donald Trump, media attention will be fixed on his first steps towards Russia. A lot has been said already about the difficult choice Trump faces after the hacking scandal: on the one hand, he promised voters he will improve relations with Moscow; on the other, any overture towards the Kremlin will be interpreted as a confirmation of the rumours about the alleged influence Russian President Vladimir Putin has over him. But little has been said about the dilemma that Putin himself faces, and that one is even more difficult.
On the one side, Trump’s victory was an unexpected gift for the Kremlin, and it seems no one is trying to hide the fact. Russian state media are going out of their way to compliment the newly elected US president and smear his opponents.
For example, Russia’s Channel One news reports portray Trump as a defender of the working class, who is harassed by deceitful media and attacked by paid demonstrators, and who will finally rescind an “unpopular” healthcare reform and defend the country against migrants. In other words, the Kremlin’s propaganda defends the US president with such dedication, as if he were the Russian president.
One can understand why this is so. After all, many painful political issues are at stake. The main one is, of course, the repeal of the sanctions, which are harming not so much the Russian economy, as individuals in Putin’s closest circle.
Another important issues is Ukraine. The Kremlin hopes to have Crimea recognised as Russian territory and not to have any weapon systems installed on Ukrainian territory. Of course, there are also expectations about the resolution of the Syrian question: Moscow hopes that Trump’s administration won’t demand that Assad steps down.
The Kremlin is happy about Trump’s statements on NATO and it hopes that its expansion will stop and military deployment close to Russian borders will be curbed.
But there is another side to this coin: Trump’s presidential victory could be a headache for Vladimir Putin as well.
The past 10 years, and especially since 2014, all internal Russian propaganda has been built on the concept of the external enemy – the West led by the US. The whole world believes that Russia is fighting in the Donbass region against Ukraine, but Russian media says Russia is fighting in Ukraine against the US. The whole world thinks that in Syria,Russia is defending Bashar al-Assad. But Russian media reports that in Syria Russia is resisting Washington’s attempt to spread chaos through the armed groups it controls.
Looking for a new villain
The US is the answer to all painful questions. If the opposition in Russia organises marches, of course, it is the US which wants to destabilise Russia by paying activists to protests.
An economic crisis in the country? No, the problem is not corruption and ineffective governance, it is Western sanctions! And if a law banning “homosexuality propaganda” is being voted on, then that is justified with protecting society from the “corrupting influence of the West”.
In fact, there is not one problem which the sharp-tongued Russian TV hosts cannot link to the US. For example, if you get detained without any reason, even beaten up in the police station, you wouldn’t blame it on Washington. But it can always be pointed out that after all, in America the police would shoot you on the spot for even the slightest resistance.
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It may be possible to avoid this difficult situation by switching attention to other Western countries. To a certain extent, this has already happened: if 10 years ago, the attitude of Russians towards Europe was positive overall, today it is much more negative – even if Europe still fairs better than the US. State TV channels portray Europe as sinking in an economic crisis, suffering under the oppression of migrants, who invade the rights of citizens and promote debauchery – the Kremlin’s media love to use the word “Gayropa” on these occasions.
In any case, Europe will not fit into the role of the new enemy. That is because this same propaganda regime was portraying Europe as a helpless and weak-willed marionette of the US. Then, of course, there needs to be another political figure embodying this enemy. Russians used to decorate their car bumpers with stickers insulting Obama. Who is going take his place? Angela Merkel? Theresa May? No, it won’t work.
There is also another reason for Europe not fitting into the role of enemy No 1. The European Union is not really a state, but a group of counties which have different relations with the Kremlin. In the Czech Republic, Serbia, Hungary, Moldova and Bulgaria, Moscow has found some understanding. Relations with Italy are not that bad either. In Austria “our” candidate lost, but in France there will be two loyal candidates for the presidential elections – Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon. And in Germany, there is space to challenge Merkel. In other words, the way Moscow sees it – not all is lost in Europe, and it is too early to demonise it.
‘Nigeria with snow’
The US is Russia’s perfect enemy because the Cold War “feud” made Russia in the eyes of its citizens as equally powerful as the US. After all, anti-American propaganda is not a Putin invention; it was a cornerstone of Soviet ideology. The rhetoric of anti-American slogans today is cut-and-pasted from Soviet propaganda. Having Russians remember an era when their country was a superpower competing with the US is very convenient for Putin as the Russian economy has shrunk to only 1.7 percent of the world’s, and loyal allies willing to recognise Crimea as Russian territory are difficult to come by.
Without a conflict with the US, Russia would lose its power status and recede to the poor outskirts of Europe, a “Nigeria with snow”, as Sergey Brin, the Moscow-born founder of Google, once described it.
In other words, while the Putin-Trump honeymoon may have been enjoyable, present circumstances are pressing for the break-up of this union. Just as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s perfect Brangelina union hit the rocks, so Trumputin is destined to end. But this will be to the benefit and relief of both sides. Sooner or later, Trump will start talking about corruption and dictatorship in Russia, while Putin’s media will soon discover that Trump is a Wall Street “insider”, a swindler and overall an illegitimate president who won fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
It’s possible this will not happen immediately. Trump will justify the revoking of the sanctions with the opportunity to get Russia to downsize its nuclear arsenal – a quite convenient for Russia, which can’t afford to maintain a huge arsenal in times of economic crisis. Moscow, itself, hinted at this to Trump so lifting sanctions doesn’t look like a one-sided concession.
It is clear that both sides will continue to make overtures for a while. After all this is reminiscent of George Bush, who looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul”, and Obama, who was trying to “restart” relations. In both cases love only lasted a short while.
Sooner or later, the lovers will be forced to realise that they are more Montague and Capulet than Romeo and Juliet .
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.