In happier times.

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I'm an Anti-Putin Russian and Clinton Makes Me Nervous

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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Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election will have a hard time dealing with Russia: The relationship between the two countries is in tatters. Donald Trump obviously doesn’t have any answers. Yet, like most of my fellow Russians who follow the race, I also have misgivings about Hillary Clinton -- even though, unlike most of them, I am an active opponent of President Vladimir Putin.

The last time an independent polling organization -- the Levada Center -- polled Russians on the U.S. presidential candidates was in August. Only 12 percent said they were following the election closely, and 73 percent said they’d heard something about it. Among the news junkies, 39 percent said Donald Trump would be a better U.S. president for Russia, while 15 percent said Clinton would be better. The state-owned pollster, VTsIOM, did its latest poll in July, finding about the same proportion of curious Russians. That survey revealed that 34 percent of those who’d heard of Trump thought Russia-U.S. relations would improve under him; only 6 percent of those who’d heard about Clinton believed that of her.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

In part, that can be explained by the effect of Putin’s propaganda machine, which has been giving Trump more favorable coverage than Clinton for two reasons. First, Russian state TV always backs populist rebels in any Western country on the theory that whatever weakens the Western establishment is good for Russia. Second, Putin and Clinton openly dislike each other. She says she sees in him a cold-blooded, self-enriching KGB agent and a bully; he remembers how she appeared to encourage protests against him in 2011. 

Those reasons matter little to me. I believe Russia’s place is in an open, free-thinking Western world, and that nationalist populists, including Trump, are destroying that vision of the West. I took part in the 2011 protests and I agree with Clinton’s assessment of Putin. And yet I, too, think a Clinton presidency would be bad for Russia -- and that would ultimately hurt the U.S. as well. 

Clinton’s positions on Russia are based on simplistic ideological lines. In a campaign speech in late August, she branded Putin “the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism” -- the brand espoused by anti-immigrant political parties in Europe. Indeed, if one took at face value Putin’s recent efforts to build a “conservative” ideology as an intellectual basis for its rule and his propaganda’s backing of European nationalists, such a description would be justified. Nothing in Russia can be taken at face value, however.

Putin’s domestic ideology, based on Orthodox Christianity and imperial patriotism, is skin-deep and inconsistent. Only 4 percent of Russians regularly attend church, even though 72 percent consider themselves Orthodox Christians. It’s difficult to impose fundamentalist values on a society that is used to the Soviet Union’s hostility to religion, has three times the abortion rate of the U.S. and contains large and autonomous Muslim and Buddhist populations.

Putin, who has donated a month’s salary to Moscow’s Jewish museum and who has opened mosques, is not an ideological ally of European nationalists like the National Front in France, who manage to be both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic. Right-wing populists talk with dread of Muslim “no-go zones” in European cities; Putin’s Russia has whole regions, notably Chechnya, where Russian laws are applied only if they are consistent with local and religious traditions. Putin’s government has been harsher than most European ones on ethnic nationalism, suppressing neo-Nazi groups with as much cruelty as it has shown Islamist terrorists.

When he came to power, Putin’s own ideology was the usual post-Soviet mix of economic neoliberalism, Communist internationalism and the veneration of a Russian history much rewritten by the Soviets. That it has acquired a veneer of right-wing nationalism is in large part the fault of Western leaders who, like Clinton, needed to place Putin on their mental maps and couldn’t quite do it. He was a post-Soviet chameleon, picking the colors that suited him at any given moment. That’s what happened with “conservatism”: He put on the colors of the camp that would accept him and not try to tell him what to do.

Putin, who has trampled on the Russian constitution in the most egregious ways, is an embodiment of its Article 13: “No ideology can be established as a government-imposed or obligatory one.”

The mismatch between an ideological Clinton and an opportunist Putin is fraught. Clinton has spoken many times about the need to undermine and contain dictators. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2014, she described her experience with the Arab Spring revolutions. “So you can go back and argue, should we have helped the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff, or we should have been on the sidelines,” she said. It’s clear which option she favored then, boasting, famously, after Moammar Al Qaddafi’s death: “We came, we saw, he died.”

It’s easy to agree with this “democracy good, dictatorship bad” approach, but harder to imagine what it will mean in practice. In Ukraine, for example, trying to thwart Putin could mean buying the line President Petro Poroshenko is trying to sell to the West -- that his opportunistic, thoroughly post-Soviet government is a beacon of freedom and a shield against the Russian plague. Poroshenko’s fondest wish is to get lethal weapons from the U.S., but granting it would probably lead to an even more destructive and deadly phase of the now-frozen conflict. What will the U.S. do if Ukraine is overrun by Russian troops as a result? Neither Clinton nor anyone else in Washington has even discussed this possibility in public.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is obviously a dictator, and he’s tight with Putin to boot. Clinton had urged President Barack Obama to be more resolute in removing him by aiding the Syrian opposition. What if President Clinton uses force more directly against Assad? Will Putin shrink from some kind of military confrontation with the U.S.? I fear not: Russian generals have been itching for such a test for the last few years, since Russia has rearmed and reformed its military. And if the confrontation occurs, consequences will be even more unpredictable than from arming Ukraine.

The Obama administration has espoused the same ideology as Clinton, but it has pulled back from actual conflict with Putin’s Russia. It has probably exhausted its opportunities to keep doing both. Putin has seen the pattern and resolved to remain the first mover, not expecting much American pushback except in words. The next administration will have to act, and there are three distinct courses of action open.

One is to remove the ideological red lines, allow that Russia may hold on to Crimea and Assad may remain in power in Syria, and try to make pragmatic deals with Putin -- for example, siding with him against the Islamic State. Another is to act as forcefully as possible in both Ukraine and Syria, risking a military confrontation with Russia but hoping Putin will be intimidated and desist. The third option is to step up economic sanctions against Russia and wait for the Putin regime to collapse for economic reasons while avoiding a direct show of force. 

My fear is that Clinton will choose one of the latter two options or a combination of them. That will enable Putin to step up the anti-Western hysteria in Russia -- and almost force him to pick up the gauntlet as soon as possible, before Russia collapses economically. He has proven many times that he doesn’t have a reverse gear. His recent ultimatum to the U.S. is proof that he’s willing to play the escalation game. A military escalation between Russia and the U.S. could have dramatic consequences for my country -- and also for the U.S. if it allows itself to be dragged into war with such a dangerous rival. 

Clinton halfheartedly tried the realpolitik option with Russia during the infamous “reset.” Her heart wasn’t in it, and Putin felt he was being duped rather than offered real carrots to join forces with the U.S. As president, Clinton probably won’t give it another, better try. I wish someone would, though: Russia cannot easily be forced onto a democratic, Western path.

That’s why I would prefer a more flexible leader, equally good with carrot and stick, to lead the U.S. It’s likely, however, that no such leader exists in the current lineup. Trump is unpredictable, which is the worst thing to be. And that’s where I disagree with most of my compatriots.

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:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net