Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman/Bloomberg Businessweek

Putin Doesn't Get American Politics

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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President Vladimir Putin is watching the U.S. election campaign with a mixture of irony, disgust and imperfect understanding. Just as American presidents and senators are not well-versed in Russian politics, Putin, too, is no expert on foreign arenas. He regards the current U.S. political show just as any ordinary guy would -- even though the election outcome is extremely important to him.

In an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, Putin's mocking misunderstanding of the U.S. electoral process was on full display. Asked whether Russia had anything to do with the recent hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent publication of stolen emails on Wikileaks, Putin added this to the expected denial:

Frankly, I couldn't even imagine that information of this kind could be of interest to the American public -- that, it turns out, the campaign staff of one of the candidates, in this case Mrs. Clinton, worked for her and not for all Democratic Party candidates in equal measure. It didn't even occur to me that this could be of interest to anyone. So even from that point of view, we couldn't have gotten in there officially. For this, you understand, one would need to have a feel for the flavor and the peculiarities of U.S. domestic politics. I doubt even our Foreign Ministry experts have the right feel for it.

The DNC hack, of course, revealed that the party machinery, and not just the Hillary Clinton campaign, was working for Clinton alone, to the detriment of Bernie Sanders. To say that wouldn't be "of interest to anyone" professes a profound ignorance of U.S. politics.

This wouldn't be Putin's first display of political illiteracy. In a January interview with the German tabloid Bild, Putin questioned the journalists: "Do you know there were two instances in American history when the president was voted in by an electoral college majority despite gaining a minority of the popular vote?" There were, in fact, four such cases, as the Russian press hastened to point out -- but Putin evidently didn't read the rebuttals, because in at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, he talked again about two instances. 

It's not uncommon for a leader to have a superficial knowledge of issues on which he doesn't need to make decisions. U.S. President Barack Obama's assertion in the 2015 State of the Union address that Russia's economy was "in tatters" thanks to Western sanctions was similarly simplistic. Putin's criticism in the Bloomberg interview of negative campaigning in U.S. elections -- "They attack each other and in some cases I wouldn't like us to follow their example" -- is as shallow as Clinton's famous mockery of Putin's return to the presidency after four years as prime minister as evidence of a Russian democracy deficit. 

To U.S. political experts, of course, going negative on a rival is just one tool among dozens. And to Russia watchers, the handover of power from Putin to Dmitri Medvedev in 2008 and back again in 2012 may not have been truly democratic, but it was still an important and successful test for a country that had not had seen an orderly power transition since the enthronement of Nicholas II.

Putin's claim that he's not up to speed on Washington machinations may be an old intelligence officer's trick meant to prove to his audience that he had nothing to do with the DNC hack and that it all happened inside the beltway. Putin is known to use such tactics when he sees his interlocutor as an adversary. Being caught out later means as little to him as it does to Donald Trump: The moment matters more than any fallout.

The admission, however, may say something about Putin himself and Russian policy vis-a-vis the West. Putin may well mean what he said in the Bloomberg interview in Vladivostok about not caring who would win the U.S. election as long as the next president is willing to work with Russia. It would be realistic not to expect generosity from Clinton, who is openly hostile to him, or from Trump, who appears enamored with improvisation. Putin clearly doesn't believe campaign rhetoric is worth much -- to him, these are just unseemly mutual attacks rather than policy statements.

So why would he want to learn more about the U.S. campaign than an average guy who sometimes reads the news and doesn't always understand it? He'll have to work with whatever result the campaign produces, and he can't dictate the outcome, whatever the Clinton campaign says about the DNC hack as a threat to U.S. democracy.

Fedor Lukyuanov, one of the most insightful commentators on Russian foreign policy, recently described Putin as a "fatalist" who "proceeds from a belief that someone else is running the show -- God, for example -- and we are just little mortals and all we can do is be quick, precise and effective about using the opportunities that open to us." That would fit with Putin's relative lack of interest in, and knowledge of, the U.S. electoral process. He'll look for openings once it's clear who's won. But when he does, his grasp of detail will need to improve.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net