Russia

Putin Preferred Clinton? Let's Test Trump's Theory

The stability of a known adversary versus the unpredictability of an impulsive newcomer.

Clinton curious?

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP -- Getty Images

In two recent interviews, President Donald Trump made the argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have preferred Hillary Clinton in the White House. Even if that's correct, it's not for the reasons Trump mentioned.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Trump's argument is that he "campaigned on strong military, strong borders, and low oil prices" and these goals don't benefit Putin:

Look what I’ve done – oil prices have been driven down. We’re sending LNG to Poland, massive shipments to Poland. That’s not what Putin wants. And for the military, we’ve got $56 billion more of equipment than anybody ever thought of, in the last budget. Putin doesn’t want that – so why would Putin want me?”

Under Clinton, Trump said, the U.S. military would be "decimated" and oil prices would be higher:

We're going to be exporting energy – he doesn't want that. He would like Hillary where she wants to have windmills. He would much rather have that because energy prices would go up and Russia as you know relies very much on energy.

On these two points -- the military and energy -- a President Clinton counterfactual is easy to envisage. It's not in Trump's favor.

In contrast to Candidate Trump, Candidate Clinton wasn't interested in expanding the U.S. military's numbers and arsenal, preferring to talk about its modernization. But Putin doesn't care whether the U.S. standing army exceeds half a million or not, or whether the U.S. Navy has more ships. Even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was a much bigger country than today's Russia, it couldn't outspend the U.S. on defense. Today, the U.S. military vastly outnumbers the Russian one, and once other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries are added in, Russia is dwarfed, frankly. That, however, doesn't matter because both countries' vast nuclear arsenals deter them from ever having an all-out war, and for possible local and proxy clashes, numerical strength isn't important. 

Russia and the U.S. back different sides in the Syrian war. There, Trump is doing roughly what Clinton intended to do to defeat Islamic State. He intensified the U.S. air campaign and stepped up support for rebels opposing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. He has also launched isolated attacks on Assad's forces, ostensibly to restrain them from using chemical weapons or striking U.S. allies, but perhaps also to make sure the U.S.-backed forces don't have to compete for areas they're clearing of IS fighters. President Barack Obama refrained from such aggressive actions, but Clinton, who established herself as a Syria hawk, likely would have acted along the same lines. Many feared she would have been more insistent on removing Assad -- she has called it a "number one priority" -- but if she did, that would hardly have made her Putin's preferred candidate, since he continues to stand by Assad as an ally.

On energy, too, President Clinton would have been an equal or greater nuisance to Putin. She received large donations from oil and gas interests, and she never showed any principled opposition to U.S. oil and gas exports. In 1996, President Bill Clinton ended a 23-year ban on oil exports from fields on Alaska's North Slope. Hillary Clinton opposed Republican attempts to lift the general export ban, but only because she believed the government should extract concessions from the oil industry in exchange. 

Her clean energy plans would have made more U.S. fossil fuels available for export, potentially driving global prices lower. Besides, as secretary of state, Clinton lobbied for more diversity in energy supplies to Europe, Russia's traditional market, pushing for the interests of U.S. nuclear power company Westinghouse and for U.S. oil and gas firms' fracking projects. As president, she would hardly be friendlier to Russian energy interests.

Democratic members of Congress currently support a bill broadening Russia sanctions to include energy pipeline projects, another indication that Clinton probably would have pushed through similar measures to retaliate for what she, in the summer of 2016, came to see as a major Russian effort to defeat her.

Whether or not Putin would have preferred Clinton as president hinges on more esoteric considerations than whether or not she would have followed traditional U.S. military and energy policies, which have always clashed with Russian interests and to which the Kremlin has long adapted.

The biggest question is whether Putin prefers the chaos, unpredictability and amateurishness of Trump's administration or the predictable, unimaginative formulas and cliches Clinton offered during her campaign and probably would have stuck to as president. His distrust of the U.S. is deep. No American leader would be able to do anything about that. Putin has said many times he'd be willing to work with any U.S. president, meaning it would be equally tough going. But would Putin prefer the stability of a known, well-researched negative or the potential for ad-hoc gains and losses?

Clearly, given the role the Russian propaganda machine took on during the 2016 campaign, Putin was interested in short-term destabilization and in mocking U.S. democracy. But he has given no indication that he wants instability in the U.S. over the long term. It's not clear how it can benefit the Kremlin except by diverting attention from its quieter exploits, such as the long-term, slow movement of the Russian border into Georgian territory occupied by Russia's puppet state of South Ossetia. The diversion, however, can be costly. No one knows what Trump might do to spite a TV pundit or lift sinking poll ratings. Meanwhile, the never-ending stream of scandals makes Russia too toxic for business relationships, as evidenced by the recent Trump administration decision to ban the products of the antivirus maker Kaspersky from use on federal systems. 

At some point, even laughing at the panic of U.S. political elites, as Putin's circle has been doing for months, can get pointlessly repetitive. If Putin is learning anything from the chain of events following Trump's election, it's probably a deepening conviction that he can't get any traction with the U.S. because its institutions are inherently hostile toward someone like him.

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:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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