An Inconvenient Triumph: Trump’s Election Creates Difficulties for Putin’s Propaganda Machine

By now, it is practically an article of faith among the commentariat that Russia won the U.S. presidential election. It is an easy case to make. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly questioned the post-WWII alliance system during the campaign, claiming that the United States does not benefit from underwriting its allies’ security. He equivocated on whether he would honor Article V of the NATO charter if one of its members was attacked, and has routinely praised the leadership style of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If Trump’s warm feelings for Putin extend beyond inauguration day and he governs with the same transactional and isolationist approach he campaigned on, he would leave Moscow free to bully its way to hegemony in Eastern Europe. Putin would suddenly find himself able to wield the threat of force with unprecedented credibility. Though Russia will lack the capacity to invade and pacify large swathes of Eastern Europe so long as depressed oil prices continue to constrain military spending, an isolationist United States would still enable a dangerous expansion of Putin’s negotiating toolkit.  Even if Putin refrains from annexing or destabilizing any more foreign territories, he would have new latitude to restore Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe.

Those who accept the intelligence community´s consensus about Moscow’s brazen interference in the presidential race fall into two camps. The first, which is largely composed of the Democratic Party establishment, maintains that the Russian government directly attempted to sway the election in Trump’s favor to bring about a more pliant administration in Washington. Trump’s open admiration for Vladimir Putin, as well the substantial financial relationships linking him and his advisors with Moscow, led more than a few to speculate that the American people were on the verge of electing a Russian agent.

“Putin will no longer be able to count on the superior flexibility and unpredictability that has kept his Western counterparts perpetually off-balance. This role-reversal may burnish his image as a serious statesman, but it will also constrain his ability to seize the initiative and act independently.”

The other camp, which includes a substantial proportion of credible political analysts in both the West and Russia, points out that Trump’s volatile personality and amorphous policy positions make him an unpredictable and potentially destabilizing factor. According to this view, the Kremlin’s propaganda operations were less about promoting Trump and more about painting the U.S. electoral process as corrupt, insecure, and undemocratic. Two teams of hackers—likely affiliated with the Russian government—hammered the Clinton campaign for months with hacked DNC emails showing that the party establishment actively attempted to swing the primary in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Propaganda outlets like Russian-funded RT and Sputnik, both geared to English-speaking audience, kept up a steady drumbeat about how a corrupt, oligarchic elite had rigged the elections in favor of Hillary Clinton. On the eve of the election, RT’s senior editor tweeted, “Democracy RIP” in anticipation of a Trump defeat.

It is true that senior figures in the Russian government greeted Trump’s victory with genuine glee. Members of Russia’s legislative assembly, the Duma, broke into applause at the results; RT’s editor changed her tune to “Establishment RIP”; Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov smugly told reporters that he expected a new alignment of Russian and U.S. foreign policy priorities; and senior Kremlin officials impishly hinted at their nation’s involvement in the electoral process.

Yet Moscow’s propagandists now face an unexpected and unprecedented task. They will have a harder time promoting the “Fortress Russia” narrative that has fueled Putin’s domestic political support since he returned to the presidency in 2012. Spooked by the 2011 protests, he tacked hard to the right in an effort to seize control of the political narrative. Initially this was done through fearmongering about the encroachment of Western moral debauchery (read: homosexuality), although it subsequently blossomed into Cold War-style rhetoric as Russia settled into a protracted phase of confrontation with the West, particularly following its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and intervention in the Donbas. As that conflict turned into an increasingly dissatisfying quagmire, Putin pivoted to Syria, launching a successful and relentlessly televised aerial campaign to roll back rebel territorial gains.

In Ukraine and Syria, Putin has prospered by creating and exploiting short-term volatility. Now, with a far more impulsive and aggressive man as his counterpart, he will have to tread far more carefully. There is no way of knowing whether a Trump administration will call his bluff in a future standoff. As a result, Putin will no longer be able to count on the superior flexibility and unpredictability that has kept his Western counterparts perpetually off-balance. This role-reversal may burnish his image as a serious statesman, but it will also constrain his ability to seize the initiative and act independently.

“As right-wing populist movements continue to topple mainstream governments across the Western world, riding to power on promises of ousting corrupt, globalist elites, Russia’s assorted nationalists, right-wing populists, and neo-fascists will be increasingly emboldened to attempt the same at home.”

If Trump keeps up a conciliatory tone toward Russia, Putin will find it much more complicated to manufacture geopolitical crises that pit Russia against a hostile West, led by a United States supposedly intent on regime change in Moscow. Without a convenient enemy, Putin will find fewer opportunities to rally support based around an external threat, and will have to rely more on positive measures that involve boosting Russians’ standard of living.

The longer the economy remains in the doldrums and ordinary Russians continue to struggle with declining wages and rising prices, the more he will need to depend on nationalism to bolster his popular support. He will do this as part of a continuing effort to co-opt Russia’s festering far-right, which, in the absence of a credible liberal opposition, represents by far the greatest political threat to his regime. Putin understood that populist nationalism helped fuel the 2011 protests, and his reactionary turn was calculated to appropriate that political energy for his own ends. He has largely succeeded in this effort. However, events abroad threaten to reverse his progress.

As right-wing populist movements continue to topple mainstream governments across the Western world, riding to power on promises of ousting corrupt, globalist elites, Russia’s assorted nationalists, right-wing populists, and neo-fascists will be increasingly emboldened to attempt the same at home. Alexander Dugin, the intellectual godfather of the extreme Eurasianist movement, declared after Trump’s victory that “the part of the Russian elite that is still liberal cannot be blamed as before for being be too pro-American. From now on, it should be blamed for being what it is: a corrupt, perverted greedy gang of bankers and destroyers of cultures, traditions, and identities.” As Putin gradually runs out of credible wag-the-dog scenarios, he will face increasingly vocal demands for the one thing he cannot give: a genuine anti-corruption campaign.

Cracking down on Russia’s corrupt, opulent elite would mean attacking the very foundation of his regime; the Kremlin would come to resemble an ouroboros. In lieu of a serious attempt to institute the rule of law, Putin has tasked the FSB, Russia’s principle state security agency, with putting on a show of draining the swamp. The recent arrest of Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukaev, ostensibly over a $2 million dollar bribe, demonstrates that no one is safe. In addition, two deputy governors from Kemerovo were recently arrested, investigations of three former governors from different regions are currently underway, and several high-ranking members of the Investigative Committee are awaiting trial. If Putin continues down this road, he will bring Russia closer to being the totalitarian regime that his most virulent critics have long accused it of being.

For now, as the Kremlin’s geostrategic aims come closer to reality, its propagandists are tacking to a mix of triumphalism, magnanimity, and downplayed expectations, trying to prepare for everything from full detente to renewed hostility with the United States. Yet the better Russians feel about Trump, the more impatient they will become with Putin. The latter surely knows this. Don’t expect the honeymoon to last.

Image: A Russian military honor guard welcomes U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, June 26, 2009. (Chad J. McNeeley, Department of Defense)


Nick Tonckens is a Russian Studies Intern at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously worked at the Wilson Center and the Massachusetts Senate. Nick is an alumnus of Bowdoin College and Phillips Academy, and recently returned from Russia where he served as a Critical Language Scholar.

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