Donald Trump

No Stranger in Moscow

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Russian citizens and President Vladimir Putin have had doting words for Mr. Trump until now, but the president-elect’s unpredictability and ongoing problems could poison the romance.

  • Facts


    • In a poll conducted by the Lewada Center, 38 percent of Russian citizens favored a Trump victory compared to only 9 percent for Ms. Clinton.
    • IS and the bombing in Syria, terrorism in Iraq, and sanctions against Russia remain problems between the United States and Russia.
    • Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov says American foreign policy will continue to be consistent no matter who is president.
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Russian President Putin attends the Business Russia Congress in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Business Russia Congress in Moscow on October 18, 2016. Source: REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko

It’s the night of the U.S. election in an English pub in Moscow. Most have already left, the glasses have been washed, the photos of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen cleared away. Two young men are still sitting at the bar in the front, squinting up at a television tuned into CNN. He did it. Donald Trump won. Michail Kovalov and Dmitri Gushov’s eyes are red from lack of sleep; in front of them a bottle of sparkling wine stands unopened. Not that they had any doubt about the outcome of the election these past hours, but the news is vindication for the night spent on bar stools. They cheer and reach for their phones. The waiter wipes tables.

Mr. Gushov is wearing a sports jacket and Mr. Kovalov a T-shirt and cap printed with “Trump/Pence.” They call themselves “political technologists.” That’s what political advisers, strategists and every kind of political influencer are now called in Russia.

If they could have voted, then naturally it would have been for Mr. Trump, they say. He stands for peace, says Mr. Kovalov. Ms. Clinton for war. The Democratic candidate is a professional bureaucrat, Mr. Trump a constructive businessman who wants to earn money and has no interest in a conflict with Russia. Ms. Clinton constantly plays according to the rules, Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has the courage to change the rules when they are wrong. For that reason, he says, Donald Trump is the best choice for Russia.

Right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky cheers: Esteemed Donald! We congratulate the well-earned victory!

Only a few hours after Mr. Trump’s electoral victory, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose comments about the candidates had thus far been quite cautious, sends his congratulations. He is hoping for “a constructive dialogue” as equal partners and with mutual respect.

In the Russian parliament, the State Duma, the representatives rise up and applaud wildly at the news of  Mr. Trump’s triumph. Right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who never shies away from crude language, cheers, “Esteemed Donald! We congratulate the well-earned victory! Let Grandma Hillary take some time to rest. The majority of Russians are behind you!”

Mr. Zhirinovsky is right. Donald Trump was the preferred candidate in Russia from the beginning. Mr. Trump’s poll ratings and popularity in the country rose consistently. According to a poll from October by the Lewada Center, a Russian non-government polling and research institute, 38 percent of citizens thought a Trump victory would be better for Russia. Only 9 percent saw Ms. Clinton as the better candidate. However the majority at 52 percent said they did not have an answer.

On Russian talk shows, observers and politicians spent hours discussing the question of who would be better for Russia, Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton. The Democratic candidate was presented to viewers as being old, sick, crazy, washed-out, jaded and malicious, as the bellicose scourge of the political world. At most, there was a bit of sympathy for her, back when her husband humiliated her with affairs gone public.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, was considered a genuine guy who freed himself from the restraints of political correctness, and just happened to have a weakness for beautiful women. Somebody who calls things as he sees them; who may lack experience but whose business interests would lead in the right direction – if the public would just let him. Because, as was often heard, the election was probably rigged and controlled since there is no real democracy at all in the United States. Should Mr. Trump win after all, then they would only do away with him just like they did John F. Kennedy.

Lithuania Daily Life
Graffiti depicting Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump, on the walls of a bar in Vilnius, Lithuania. Source: AP/Mindaugas Kulbis

Mr. Trump is considered friendly towards Russia, whereas Ms. Clinton is rigid. But that impression can be deceiving. It’s true that the Republican candidate had boasted of a supposedly good relationship with Mr. Putin – he held out the prospect of recognizing the annexed Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory, considers the conflict in eastern Ukraine to be strictly European business and NATO membership too expensive. But lately he has been back-pedaling on a number of things he had been trumpeting to the world.  He has made up for outlandish statements many times by being excessively tough.

The personal relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump may be more unencumbered than that of Mr. Putin to Ms. Clinton – simply because they don’t really know each other yet. But the reality and the problems between the two countries continue to exist: IS and the bombing in Syria, terrorism in Iraq, sanctions against Russia because of unresolved conflict in Ukraine and two societies marked by a mutual lack of understanding and no warm feelings. The Republicans have – at least until now – stood for tougher policy against Russia than the Democrats.

That is the situation awaiting Donald Trump. Russian business daily Vedomosti put it in a nutshell prior to the election: If Clinton wins, then Russia knows where it stands. If Trump wins, they have no idea what to expect. The question is how much of Mr. Trump’s unpredictability can be institutionally roped in. Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov says American foreign policy will continue to be consistent no matter who is president. But others say Mr. Trump will personalize and blow apart policy with his erratic, aggressive character.

“Political technologists” Mr. Gushov and Mr. Kovalov on their bar stools are convinced things will start looking up in Russia. There will be a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. There will be talks about political and economic interests, at least a discussion of the sanctions. It is also good for Europe that Mr. Trump is president, they say, because now Europe will no longer be a lackey of the United States. Germany can be “great again,” Mr. Kovalov rolls with laughter, as Mr. Trump gives his first speech after winning, and talks of uniting the country.


This article was originally published in Handelsblatt’s sister publication Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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