Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are united not only in their use of vicious sarcasm in their speeches: The two have also both publicly expressed their admiration for each other.
But critics of the U.S. Republican presidential candidate, not least his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, go a step further. They don’t just accuse the two of exchanging niceties but claim Russia is massively interfering in the U.S. presidential election with the use of intelligence operations advantaging Mr. Trump, who, despite his denials, maintains close business ties to Russia.
So much coziness is perceived with anxiety in Germany, a country that believes it has also been subjected to Kremlin-sponsored cyber-attacks.
Moscow’s answer to these accusations has been unequivocally dismissive.
“Is America some sort of banana republic? America is a major power. Correct me if I’m wrong,” Russian President Mr. Putin rhetorically asked a group of international analysts and academics gathered at the annual Valdai discussion forum last week in Sochi, with pointed astonishment.
Emphatically dismissing claims that Moscow is able to influence the American election, Mr. Putin was seeking to counter the ever-louder accusations that his secret service and hackers were doing precisely this – more specifically, by targeting U.S. servers in a bid to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Seventeen U.S. intelligence services have confirmed that there was direct Russian intervention.”
The use of the term banana republic in this connection is particularly snide, since the U.S. is known to have manipulated politics in Latin American countries on a massive scale. Moscow is now accusing Washington of the same thing in Eastern Europe, claiming the United States staged upheavals in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the guise of a series of so-called “color revolutions.” Furthermore, Mr. Putin is continually accusing the U.S. government of planning to do the same in Russia.
So could this be Russia’s retaliation? “I don’t think we’ve ever had in the history of this country a foreign government attempting to intervene so clearly and dramatically,” Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union said during the Handelsblatt Election Camp in Washington, adding weight to the massive fears of America’s secret services. “Seventeen U.S. intelligence services have confirmed that there was direct Russian intervention,” Mr. Eizenstat emphasized.
In addition to emails from Democrats headquarters made public on the Wikileaks whistleblowing platform, possibly dubious email communications from Ms. Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were also leaked.
Following the FBI’s announcement of reopening the investigation into Ms. Clinton’s emails, Mr. Trump was already talking about “the greatest scandal since Watergate” – and prompted Russia to dig deeper into her emails. The Republican nominee’s foreign affairs advisor, Major General Bert Mizusawa, has justified that as being “dry humor.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly found words of praise for Mr. Putin and President Barack Obama has slammed the Republican nominee for his “flattery” of Mr. Putin and derided the “bromance” between the pair.
The Russian president has many reasons to like Mr. Trump. Politically, his utterances are a blessing for Russia: He has disparaged NATO, which Mr. Putin accuses of ganging up on Russia, as obsolete – and has threatened U.S. allies with leaving them to look after their safety by themselves.
But there’s more: Mr. Trump’s statements that he could live with the annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and might drop sanctions against Russia are also likely to have pleased Mr. Putin. Just as much as Mr. Trump’s comment on Russia’s bombing of Syria: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing, also.”
What Mr. Putin cannot handle at all is what he considers moralizing personalities like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton, whom he came to know as U.S. Secretary of State. He likes more casual characters like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a center-left Social Democrat, or former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or, of course, Mr. Trump, whom he describes as an “ordinary guy” – as he does of himself.
Mr. Trump has so far been persistently denying being 'Russia’s useful idiot,' as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright termed him.
In turn, Mr. Trump has announced he wants “the big deal with Russia – in America’s interest.”
This singular exchange of courtesies has raised eyebrows outside of the U.S. as well.
News of an attack on the German Bundestag’s IT network broke in May last year. Unknown hackers gained access to 14 servers of the Bundestag, including the main server with all login details, with a very sophisticated program.
Last summer, German political parties were subjected to another wave of cyber attacks, which intelligence officials suspect were sponsored by Moscow.
They contend that Russia now wants to create chaos in the U.S. election process and present it as being undemocratic, so as to divert attention from electoral fraud at home.
And as if on cue, Kremlin chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov has already passed judgment on the U.S. elections, saying they “probably can’t be called democratic.”
For his part, Mr. Trump has so far been persistently denying being “Russia’s useful idiot,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright termed him, or even “a puppet of Moscow.”
But talk of Mr. Trump’s questionable connections to Russia is not going away. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, used to be a key lobbyist for the Putin-endorsed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych who got ousted by the anti-Russian Maidan revolution of early 2014.
Most recently, prominent but unidentified cyber experts published proof in online magazine Slate that a server located in Trump Tower in New York was in constant communication with the financial firm Russian Alfa Bank.
Mr. Trump’s rivals are riling against his stance on Russia. For example, a Democrat-related advocacy group, called Progress for USA, launched the website Putintrump.org and warns: “The stakes are enormous. Voting Trump / Pence in 2016 could lead to a Putin / Trump world in 2017.”
Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk, leading the coverage of the Ukraine crisis. Jean-Michel Hauteville of the Handelsblatt Global Edition has contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.