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Putin Knows Working With Trump Won't Be Fun

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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In Moscow, many allies of President Vladimir Putin appeared to be in a festive mood after Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election. They aren't stupid, though: They know the gap between Trump's relatively pro-Russian rhetoric during the campaign and his actual policy may be "yuuuge." The celebratory noise is tactical -- an attempt to flatter Trump so he doesn't forget all the nice things he had promised Putin while he ran against that notorious Russia hawk, Hillary Clinton.

The Kremlin will know if the tactic has worked when Trump picks his cabinet, but chances are it won't work too well.

On Wednesday, minutes after Clinton called Trump to concede, legislator Vyacheslav Nikonov addressed the pro-Putin lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma: "A second ago Trump began his speech as president-elect of the United States of America, and I congratulate you all on this." The chamber burst into applause. Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Duma's Foreign Relations committee, called Trump's election "the morning of hope" for U.S.-Russian relations. On Thursday, Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov said Trump's and Putin's foreign policy views were "phenomenally close." 

Sergey Markov, a pro-Putin foreign policy ideologist, wrote on Facebook:

It was the silent moral majority that voted for Trump, that which lives in small towns, has moderately conservatively views, believes in God, in family, in morals, that which wants to do honest work rather than steal or live on government assistance. That is Vladimir Putin's base, too. Both Putin and Trump think like businessmen and prefer a contract to a conflict. Both have said good things about each other. This creates a good foundation for a good relationship between the Russian and U.S. presidents and for an overall improvement in relations.

Putin himself was among the first to congratulate Trump on the win. That's clearly the way to win the U.S. president elect's favor. After he won, Trump first talked to those foreign leaders who hadn't voiced opposition to him. The first one he spoke with was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who had been the first to congratulate him. He took inordinately long to get to U.K. Prime Minister Therese May -- probably not because Brexit has diminished her country's significance but because she had called him "divisive, unhelpful and wrong." Trump made it clear during the campaign that he was taking things personal, and he was unapologetic about it. Putin and his allies in Moscow got the message: It's no skin off their backs to act happy about Trump's election -- something more principled leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have not seen fit to do. 

None of this, however, is an indication of euphoria. Putin has cautiously remarked that he'd "heard" Trump's encouraging statements during the campaign -- presumably meaning the Republican candidate's promises of cooperation in Syria and a more hands-off approach to Ukraine -- but "it will be a long path" toward a U.S.-Russian rapprochement, "considering the unfortunate degradation of relations."

Slutsky of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee also urged caution. "Trump played to the audience," he said in a TV interview. "Ronald Reagan also used to play to the audience, but he turned out to be the most anti-Russian of presidents." And Sergei Kalashnikov, a member of the Russian parliament's upper house, called Trump "a cowboy who expresses the interests of a conservative and rather aggressive part of U.S. society. "We bought into some of his overtures to Russia and mistakenly decided he'd be good for us," Kalashnikov told the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. "But any U.S. president is only good for the U.S."

Unlike U.S. pundits, who took Trump's talk of a softer approach to Russia literally -- as they did his talk of banning Muslims from the U.S. or not accepting the outcome of the election -- members of Putin's team won't make this mistake. They have built their political edifice on a parallel reality created by propaganda outlets. In that reality, Trump was Russia's favorite candidate -- but few people inside the machine believed their own propaganda. Margarita Simonyan, head of the RT channel, was happy about Trump's victory, but she tweeted sarcastically, "If Trump recognizes Crimea as ours, makes a deal with us on Syria and frees [Julian] Assange, I will retire. Because the world will be beautiful."

While the U.S. media, most openly backing the Clinton campaign, allowed the oversimplification that Trump could unilaterally start playing into Putin's hands, the Kremlin had no reason to deceive itself. It was duly noted in Moscow that Trump's closest allies are Russia hawks. 

Vice President-elect Mike Pence made his stance clear during the vice-presidential debate, calling for more active push-back against Russia in Syria. Senator Jeff Sessions, widely tipped to be the next secretary of defense, has called for punishing Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea.

The three candidates for the secretary of state job who are being publicly discussed are no Russia softies, either. 

Former speaker Newt Gingrich has a history of backing U.S. intervention in the Balkans, which created one of Putin's biggest grievances against the U.S. as the "global gendarme." Though Gingrich has recently cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, such as Estonia, he might prove a more inconvenient counterpart to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov than John Kerry has been. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has criticized Barack Obama's administration for being too soft on Putin. 

The Kremlin would probably find it easiest to deal with John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has criticized U.S. sanctions against Russia because, he said, they weren't "going to slow Putin down in the slightest" -- a prediction that proved correct. Yet he, too, is no isolationist; he's said that Putin would prefer Clinton as president because of her weakness. 

If Trump appoints hawks to important foreign policy jobs -- which seems likely, because there's nobody else on his bench -- many will say Putin should have been careful what he'd wished for. Putin, however, has been careful all along, anyway. If his propaganda machine worked to help Trump, that's because the Kremlin loves destabilizing Western establishment democracies: When it's successful, Putin gets more fear and respect. Forging these emotions into real-world advantages is more difficult than inciting them, and though Putin will work on it with Trump, he's probably heard the Rolling Stones song Trump liked to play at his rallies: "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

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:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net