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Mikhail Zygar: Why Putin Prefers Trump

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With signs of Russian involvement in the damaging Democratic National Committee email hack, questions have been increasing about just what Putin’s motives might be when it comes to the US presidential election. We put that question to one of Moscow’s top Putin observers.

Mikhail Zygar writes: The year 2005 was a turning point in Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and worldview. Until then, he’d had the sense that he was in control on the world stage, that he knew the rules of the game, that he understood whom he was dealing with and who his partners were. But in 2005, everything changed, and slowly the ground started moving out from under his feet.

That was the year Putin’s friend and partner Gerhard Schroeder lost the German elections and resigned as chancellor. Schroeder and Putin, who spoke German after serving in the KGB in East Germany, understood each other well and established close diplomatic and personal ties. But in 2005, Schroeder was replaced by Angela Merkel, whom Putin didn’t understand—and doesn’t understand to this day. In the intervening 12 years, he started suspecting Merkel of deceiving him, spinning intrigues and weaving conspiracies against him. He 51x3jqyxkrl-_sl250_showed his distrust by bringing his dog to meetings with Merkel, knowing full well that she had an intense fear of canines.

[Check out Mikhail Zygar’s book “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” at Amazon.com]

Now, Putin seems to be experiencing déjà vu: In the upcoming U.S. election, the battle is, once again, between a Gerhard Schroeder and an Angela Merkel—but with the differences and the stakes hugely amplified. The American Merkel is even more unpleasant to Putin. Hillary Clinton is already inclined to dislike him and Russia from her experience as secretary of state. Their personal interactions have not been positive; there is no love lost between the two. And then you have the American Schroeder, who seems to be an even better fit for Putin than the German one, and better even than Putin’s favorite international partner, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

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Donald Trump, in the Kremlin’s view, is extremely pragmatic, extremely unprincipled and extremely cynical—which makes him easier to reach an understanding with. Not to mention that Trump, unlike Clinton and just about the entire rest of the Washington foreign policy class, has explicitly expressed admiration and sympathy for Putin.

This is the kind of relationship with a US president the Kremlin has dreamed about, and has been unable to attain, for years.

From the very beginning of his presidency, Putin has bet on personal relationships with world leaders as the basis for his foreign policy. It is almost as if he has tried to recruit all of them, trying to find each one’s personal key. He realized very quickly that all foreign leaders can be divided up into two important categories: those who believe in certain values (usually, democratic ones) and those who are totally cynical, concerned with self-advancement and power for its own sake. Sooner or later, attempts to build a relationship with leaders of the first category run aground on the rocks of mutual incomprehension. With leaders of the latter category, everything is on the table.

Putin formulated what he wants from the outside world at the very start of his presidency: respect for him and for Russia. When he spoke at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he described in great detail what that should look like. There needed to be…(read more)

Source: POLITICO Magazine

Mikhail Zygar is the author of All the Kremlin’s Men, a bestseller in Russia that was published in English this year. Zygar is the former editor-in-chief of TV Rain, the only independent Russian national television network, and a recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2014 International Press Freedom Award. This article was translated from Russian by Julia Ioffe.
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