Russians Are Divided When Faced With the Reality of a Trump Presidency

The Kremlin is hopeful, but some citizens, opposition leaders and intellectuals worry he won’t stay true to enough promises to mend U.S.-Russia relations.
Here's how Russia is taking the news of Donald Trump's victory.
Here's how Russia is taking the news of Donald Trump's victory.

MOSCOW ―  Just hours after a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, reports of Russian airstrikes in Syria, and their possible connection to Trump’s victory, began to circulate.

Russian advances within Syria have often been seen as losses for the United States, as both countries have in the past supported opposing efforts within the complicated conflict.

Throughout the U.S. presidential election season, there has been heavy speculation over Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia. And in the little over a week since the Republican nominee was elected president of the United States, these speculations have only increased, with some noting that we are already beginning to see the impacts of the Putin-Trump “bromance” in action.

As the world grapples with what for many was a surprise victory, writers in some Western media outlets like The Times and The Boston Globe stated that the U.S. election result (the Globe op-ed published before the election was called) would only serve to benefit one person – Vladimir Putin.

So what’s the view in Russia? The government and some of the public seem pleased, but others, including opposition leaders, public intellectuals and people I surveyed on the streets of Moscow seem more skeptical, if not cautiously optimistic.

Hours after Putin and Trump spoke, Russian strikes pounded Aleppo, Syria. 
Hours after Putin and Trump spoke, Russian strikes pounded Aleppo, Syria. 

Now, just over a week since his win, it seems that Russia is one of the few major world powers that still holds a distinctly positive impression of Trump and the election results, with many global leaders giving more obligatory diplomatic congratulations, or even publicly condemning comments made by Trump earlier during his campaign.

In fact, Putin’s congratulatory telegram to Trump focused on a vision of progress in the U.S.-Russia relationship. The telegram noted Putin’s hope to work together to prevent the current “crisis” tone of the U.S.-Russia relationship from escalating and said that he expects the joint solution of “topical issues of the international agenda” and a search for “effective responses to the challenges of global security” to be cornerstones of their future collaboration.  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also commented on the new American administration last week in New York, saying that he felt the similarities between Putin and Trump’s policies allowed for strong groundwork in the future of the bilateral relationship.

But the most significant show of Trump support from Moscow on the government side arguably came from the Russian parliament when members started applauding after receiving the news of the election results. And despite previous comments from the Trump camp ― and from various Russian officials ― claiming a lack of interference in the U.S. election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that there had in fact been contact between the Russian government and members of Trump’s political team during the campaign. The White House, too, recently confirmed it had warned Russia over hacking. 

Yet with all the excitement over Trump’s victory among Russian government officials, what makes the Kremlin so enthusiastic about Trump is still somewhat unclear.

'Of course they’ll drink champagne in the Kremlin, but not for long. Then they’ll realize that nothing is resolved and that the election of Trump will lead to more chaos. But that’s what we’re selling ― chaos.' Gleb Pavlovsky, former Putin adviser and political analyst

To be sure, Trump has said many positive things about Russia and President Putin over the course of his campaign, but as many in the U.S. media have pointed out, this does not necessarily correlate to what his policies will be as a president. Every new U.S. president in recent memory, such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and currently Barack Obama, aimed to move towards more positive relations with Russia at some point during their reign of power, with many of those efforts not ending as well as intended. So who is to say that Trump will be any different?

Maybe he needs to be not different, but just himself, independent political analyst Masha Lipman noted in Meduza, a Russian online publication. “Even if the U.S.-Russian relationship doesn’t become better, the potential conflict over Trump’s domestic U.S. policies may end up benefiting Russia, just through virtue of weakening the U.S internally,” she said.

But even if that is true, there is still some argument that the chaos and unpredictability of Trump’s campaign will not benefit anyone ― even Russia.

“Of course they’ll drink champagne in the Kremlin, but not for long,” former Putin adviser and political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, told Foreign Policy magazine ahead of the election about a possible Trump win. “Then they’ll realize that nothing is resolved and that the election of Trump will lead to more chaos. But that’s what we’re selling ― chaos.”

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote a blog post and released a video on Trump's win soon after the election.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote a blog post and released a video on Trump's win soon after the election.

The View From Opposition Leaders

While much of the Russian government has reacted to the election of Donald Trump with hope, and perhaps even joy, those public officials who oppose Putin’s regime fear the new American leader will have a more damaging impact on their country. This is perhaps expected, given their perception of Putin, but it is telling that so many have already come out publicly on the matter.

Alexei Navalny, one of the main figures of the Russian opposition, for instance, dedicated a post in his blog to Trump shortly after the election in which he explained more specifically why the new American president will be a disaster for Russia. According to Navalny, Trump will first encourage the U.S. to export more oil and gas, which may compete with Russian exports. Navalny then went on to say that he believed that Trump will move to spend more money on the army because the U.S. needs to have military weaponry in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to protect itself against Russia.

Other members of the Russian opposition shared similar doubts and worries, though for other reasons. Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Yabloko, an anti-Kremlin liberal party, for example, said that all of Trump’s efforts to make peace with Russia were intended merely to oppose Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her aggressive position on Moscow. Now that he is elected, Yavlinsky said, Trump won’t actually follow through on such strong measures of friendship and will likely revert back to some degree of antipathy.

Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition member of the Russian parliament, explained in his own article that that the “Russian administration doesn’t need peace with [the] U.S.” Any external actions that Trump takes toward lesser tension between the two countries, he said, is not of importance because it ultimately will do little to improve the crisis state of the Russian economy, a more pressing concern to many here outside of the ruling government than the state of affairs with Washington.

Regardless of political affiliation, many Russian media articles seemed to paint Trump as problematic for the world.
Regardless of political affiliation, many Russian media articles seemed to paint Trump as problematic for the world.

Public Intellectuals & Aligned Media: ‘A Tragedy’

The complexity of reactions to a President Trump in the Russian government and among opposition leaders is even more amplified within independent Russian media, where many public intellectuals have taken to expressing their own views.

Prior to the election, a significant number of Russians, according to a poll done by Gallup International, said they would like to see Trump as the next American president. But many public intellectuals, who relayed their thoughts in newspapers and blogs, were mostly against him.

Echo of Moscow – one of the main liberal radio stations in Russia – published a variety of opinions on the results, but the dominant perspective seemed to line up with that of the outraged American public ― that the idea of Trump as a president was insane, and that his presidency would be a tragedy for the U.S..   

The media outlet also published pieces calling Trump, “a very right populist, who now will prove if America has enough of [a] checks and balances policy” and insinuating even further that the Trump presidency was won by fear mongering.

'A candidate who showed all [the] weakest points of democratic ideology.' Russian public intellectual perspective on Trump

And similar views were expressed by the columnists of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, some of which said that Trump gave a voice to those in America who have fascist views, and noted that his demand for populism was perhaps the only positive aspect of his otherwise volatile personality.

While less directly enthusiastically supportive of the president-elect than government officials, other public intellectuals in Russia who identify with the ideology of the American Libertarian Party, have even taken to calling Trump, “a candidate who showed all [the] weakest points of democratic ideology.” These public figures tend to view republican ideology as the lesser of two evils, so Trump prevailing is preferable in the sense that it prevents the U.S. Democratic party from maintaining what they have seen as a monopoly over the U.S. government in the last eight years.

Regardless of the political leanings of these media outlets, I found that many commentators in Russian media tended to hold the same general perspective ― that Trump’s victory seems to be problematic for the whole world, even Russia. 

“When Obama was president, how many times was he trying to get rid of this famous prison, Guantanamo, right? And what i
“When Obama was president, how many times was he trying to get rid of this famous prison, Guantanamo, right? And what in the end he could do?” asks Sergey, 32, from Moscow.

What Everyday Russians Are Saying

But where media within Russia have run articles focusing on the impacts of Trump and government and opposition leaders have commented on what good or bad those impacts may have on this country, a small sample of Russians civilians I interviewed in Moscow were more concerned with whether Trump will even be able to actually impact Russia and the U.S.-Russia relationship given the constraints to his power instilled in the American political system.

“Being a president, he will still have to deal with [the] Senate, Congress ― all the other institutions of power ― who have their own interests,” said Sergey, 32, an engineer from Moscow, expressing his doubts.

“When Obama was president, how many times was he trying to get rid of this famous prison, Guantanamo, right? And what in the end he could do?”

Aside from the limits within the U.S governmental system, the issues of a divided society and the growing anti-Trump demonstrations in the U.S. are not lost on other Russians watching the aftermath of the process unfold across the republic.

Anna, a 25-year-old facilities manager from Moscow, pointed to recent U.S. protests of Trump’s election as a major hurdle for his presidency and relations with her country.

'How [can] Trump start a new relationship with Russia if now he has become the president of [a] country where half of the population vot[ed] for Clinton with her much more hostile attitude towards us?' Anna, 25, from Moscow

“How [can] Trump start a new relationship with Russia if now he has become the president of [a] country where half of the population vot[ed] for Clinton with her much more hostile attitude towards us?” she said. “He can’t just ignore all these people, especially if they already started protesting against him.”

But for some Russians, Trump’s rhetoric, even going back to the campaign trail, planted a seed of hope for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship. They see this as enough to be cautiously optimistic that the new American president may follow through on his promises.

“He was all the time talking about having good connections with us, that he likes Putin,” said Elena, a 43-year-old salesman at a stationery shop in Moscow. “This can’t stay just words.”

And one of the ways to move those words into action could be to cancel the sanctions against Russia implemented in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, explained Andrey, a 21-year-old student from Moscow.

“Trump is a businessman. Of course he sees that these sanctions are bad for the economy of all countries, and that’s more important than any political impact which they can have,” he said.

Maria, 27, an office clerk from a financial company in Moscow, also thinks that Trump’s business identity makes him more likely to achieve better relations with her country.

“As a dealer, he must understand, that trade is more beneficial than war, so he may not want it [war] neither between [the] U.S. and Russia ― [and] maybe, not in Syria [either].”

For now, those in Moscow and around the country will have to wait and see what a President Trump will really mean for their nation and for the world. Meanwhile, like in America, a number of Russians who appear anxious about Trump have taken to laughing at the man as a way of coping with what his presidency might look like – with different memes, pictures and anecdotes recirculating on social media and through local newspapers. These jokes include, for example, pictures of Trump and Putin riding a horse together while shirtless, Putin and Trump as a father and son and Hillary Clinton saying to the Ukrainan President Petro Poroshenko, “We’ve lost everything.”

'It would be nice to have a go at that.' Translation of popular meme capturing Russian attitude toward Trump win

One of the most popular quips circulating in Russia seems to be one posted online about a Trump presidency. It roughly translates to, “it would be nice to have a go at that,” implying that in Russia, the possibility of a real election with Putin not automatically declared the winner, would be less easy. This also shows that for many Russians, the political difference between Trump and Putin is quite apparent.

But Russian speculation on the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship from the government, opposition leaders, public intellectuals, media and people on the streets of Moscow and the impact that Trump will have on it, is just that ― speculation. Many Russian civilians are content to wait and see what his actions in office will be and have stopped paying attention to the little day to day developments. When Trump is inaugurated, he will have to deal with many of the issues that already exist between the U.S. and Russia – Syria and the rest of the Middle East, Ukraine, sanctions and NATO, to name a few. And though it is possible to round up Trump’s quotes about each case and ponder what moves he will make, his decisions, in the end, may turn out to be just as unpredictable as his victory in this election.

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