Smoke signals.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin Starts to Win American Minds, if Not Hearts

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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According to recent data from Pew Research, 90 percent of Americans view "Russia's power and influence" as a threat, and 72 percent believe Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found 64 percent of Americans believe that Russia hacked the Democrats. In short, America has been persuaded, no matter how little it trusts its media and other institutions.

Does this mean, however, that most Americans are angry with President Vladimir Putin and would like to punish Russia? Polls say no. Like President Obama's Russia sanctions, the attempts to demonize Russia for its interference seem to have backfired.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Pew results show Putin's favorability has slightly increased compared with two years ago -- thanks to a significant bump in positive views among Republicans. This is not love; rather, it is a grudging respect.

It also comes through in the Washington Post/ABC News results. Overall, a narrow plurality of that poll's respondents -- 43 percent -- says Donald Trump, who has barely criticized Putin, is too friendly toward Russia, while 40 percent say he's taking the right approach. Among Republicans, though, 75 percent say Trump is getting it right on Russia. Among white voters in general, a 52 percent majority agree with Trump's approach.

Trump's electoral base has taken on board everything that has been said about Russia's increased international assertiveness and its daring in playing on U.S. turf -- but not the recommendations that went with it. Liberal and traditional Republican pundits stressed the differences in values between Putin's authoritarian state and the U.S., accused Russia of barbarity and war crimes in Syria and called for tougher action to rein it in. Those calls are largely ignored.

In days past, such a campaign could have whipped the populace into a frenzy. In his 2010 book, "Crimea: The Last Crusade," Orlando Figes quoted what the English and French newspapers wrote about Russia in the early 1850s. The quotes have a familiar feel. A writer who dared suggest Russia may have been right in protecting the Balkan people against Turkey was attacked from all sides as a Russian stooge. A French paper called the Impartial editorialized in January 1854: 

To pretend otherwise is to overturn all notions of order and justice. Falsity in politics and falsity in religion -- that is what Russia represents. Its barbarity, which tries to ape our civilization, inspires our mistrust, its despotism fills us with horror.

It went on: "The policies of Nicholas have raised a storm of indignation in all the civilized states of Europe; these are the policies of rape and pillage; they are brigandage on a vast scale." No wonder the kings of England and France had full popular support when they declared war on Russia a couple of months later. 

Today, however, similar incantations fail to drum up majority support even for a re-enactment of the Cold War. Trump's idea of negotiating some kind of mutually acceptable deal with Russia is about as popular among the general electorate as the notion of a tough response. And among Republicans, it is overwhelmingly the popular choice. Even the ultimate Russia hawk, Senator John McCain, is leaning toward voting for Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, after the former oil executive outlined a flexible Russia policy. 

In a sense, this is what Putin has always wanted from the U.S. He never expected a love affair or -- a word U.S. commentators love -- a bromance. His goal has been to have a non-ideological conversation about common interests and mutually enforced red lines. As Sergei Karaganov, an influential foreign policy adviser to the Kremlin, wrote in a recent article in the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta:

Competition with the U.S. won't go away. It can be acute and even dangerous. But the arrival of a new administration that wants to focus on America itself, creates a window of opportunity for the normalization of relations, for rebuilding them on the basis of interests and balances.

It is, however, also something for which Trump appears to have a mandate from Republican voters. They realize Russia is not a friendly power, but they lean toward negotiation rather than implacable confrontation. 

Perhaps it's generally more difficult today, after all the devastating wars of the 20th century and the unresolved, bloody local conflicts of the last 15 years, to whip people into a belligerent mindset. Perhaps Russia's status as a nuclear power inspires certain respect, especially since Putin's military adventures largely have been successful. Perhaps regime change in Russia appears to be an unrealistic goal after failures in a series of smaller, weaker countries. And perhaps, by convincing Americans that Russia successfully meddled in the U.S. election, the Democrats and the media that has largely accepted that narrative, bolstered faith in Russia's power and the conviction that treading carefully would be a good idea.

If the latter is true, the U.S. has continued to build up Putin's power. It started with the weak Ukraine-related sanctions that helped Putin convince Russians the West was an enemy and bought him time while the economy suffered from an oil price decline. It has more recently continued by advertising Russia's hacking and propaganda prowess. As a result, Putin is punching well above Russia's economic weight, and many Americans are happy to let Trump legitimize it.

Perhaps that's for the better: In the longer term, it may be harder for Putin to survive a constructive relationship with the West than a sharply adversarial one. The Soviet Union, remember, fell when its relations with the West were friendlier than ever in its history.

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