Putin's Pick: Clinton or Trump?

On GPS: Putin on Trump
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    On GPS: Putin on Trump


On GPS: Putin on Trump 02:03

Story highlights

  • Nina Khrushcheva: Clinton might be more beneficial for Russian-American relations, despite lack of Russian support
  • Trump's brash personality might clash with Putin's should he be elected, Khrushcheva says

Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School and the great-granddaughter of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Her latest book is The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Russia's Vladimir Putin has been enjoying power for several decades now. From Bill Clinton in 1999 through to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016, the Russian president has seen the relationship between two former superpowers transform from post Cold War jamboree to new Cold War acrimony.

Nina Khrushcheva
In light of recent terror attacks, it is crucial to examine the political alliance the next American president will have to manage with Russia. Notably, one of the Istanbul attackers came from Russia and two others from former Soviet Union satellites, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Since Putin plans to stay in power until 2024, the future White House leader will have to engage with him -- particularly now in the global war on terrorism. Though Putin has repeatedly promised to "work with any U.S. president," he insists that Russia should be treated like an equal partner, and that the United States should not act from a position of strength and exclusivity -- a message the next American president should take to heart.

    Clinton vs. Trump

    Of the two candidates, Hillary Clinton is most likely to heed this message. Though Trump and Putin share an exhibitionist personality and brash leadership style, neither is one to take orders from anyone but themselves. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton is measured, pragmatic and much more accustomed to Russian-style diplomacy.
    President Putin gives rare access to CNN
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      President Putin gives rare access to CNN


    President Putin gives rare access to CNN 01:32
    This style of diplomacy was deployed at a mid-June economic summit in St. Petersburg. After a two-year hiatus following Russia's Crimea annexation from Ukraine, the summit regained importance with Putin hosting, among others, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. They both advocated better relations with Russia in fighting extremism and improving economic ties. In turn, Putin warned that as long as the United States "teach all how to live," there would be no progress in the relationship despite some cooperation on "issues of non-proliferation weapons of mass destruction, the fight against terrorism, [and] solutions for Iran's nuclear problem of chemical weapons in Syria."

    The Trump Card

    Though no American politician attended the summit, it appears that Trump was listening from afar. He already sees the Russian president as a kindred spirit. Trump announced that he "would get along with Putin," and Putin, in return, praised Trump as "a very ... talented man," who wants deeper relations with Russia.
    At first glance, they share a "tough guy" persona -- manipulating public opinion, violating the laws of decency and boasting strength -- akin to Putin's relationship with similar political leaders, most famously the Italian former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. With his big mouth and brash deal-making, the U.S. billionaire is considered "frank" and "pragmatic." Yet, others anticipate that Trump's promises to erect a wall against Mexico or to force China to stop its financial "manipulations," and his assurance that his presidency will make the United States both unpredictable and consistent would only turn the remaining superpower into a global laughing stock. Either way, Trump's presidential victory is seen as victory for the Russians.
    But I would challenge readers to look beyond the rhetoric. Given the similarities in their personalities, Trump will quickly show the Russian president his place. Putin's nationalist "Russia First" message may not bother candidate Trump as he touts his own "America First" ideology. But Putin's refusal to recognize American superiority would quickly interfere with Trump's essential characteristic -- perceiving himself the leader of the free world. If Trump attains control of America's vast resources, both in terms of military and technology, Putin will begin to pose a challenge. And since neither Putin nor Trump are known to back down, a slight dispute may turn their flourishing "bromance" into a global threat on par with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

    The Clinton Advantages

    Even though just 10% of Russians say they want Hillary Clinton, the former senator and secretary of state may be their better bet. She proposed the pragmatic "not confrontational" approach to Putin's bullying tactics in Ukraine, even though she viewed the annexation of Crimea as deeply problematic. An architect of the 2009 Reset Policy with Russia, Hillary Clinton understands the need to cooperate more on the Syria crisis and other security threats, including the kind of attacks that shook Turkey last week. Even though she would insist on Putin's honoring the Minsk peace agreement for eastern Ukraine in exchange for lifting sanctions, she may be willing to reward Putin incrementally -- for observing a cease-fire, for a timely prisoner exchange or for withdrawing military equipment.
    After all, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States, in the 1990s her husband's administration partially lifted the embargo in response to North Korea's folding its missile program. And the Kremlin, with its patriarchal view of women, believes that Hillary Clinton would ultimately take cues from Bill Clinton's foreign policy. In fact, on a recent trip to St. Petersburg, Putin almost entirely ignored questions about Hillary Clinton, yet took time to say that he and Bill Clinton had "a very good relationship ... I am grateful to him for some moments during my entry into politics. A few times he showed me signs of respect, to me personally, and to Russia."
    On GPS: Putin on Hillary Clinton
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      On GPS: Putin on Hillary Clinton


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    Respect between men of power is of paramount importance to Putin. Much of his displeasure with world affairs stems from a feeling that the United States acts a "dictat," directing every other country in how to make decisions. Bill Clinton, however, is an exception. Putin addresses him with an informal "ty" (you), a familiarity enjoyed by Berlusconi, rather than a more formal "vy," reserved for other world leaders. To a certain extent, Putin aspires to be like Bill Clinton -- globally successfully and universally respected.
    Even if Hillary Clinton is not amenable to immediately bring Putin back into the circle of Western friends (although with Brexit a reality, Putin hopes that the European Union will be less inclined to continue to punish Russia for Ukraine), Bill Clinton can provide unofficial support. In Moscow, many talk of Bill Clinton's capacity for informal negotiations, including his role in North Korea, where he helped to free two American journalists during the late Kim Jong Il rule. Muscovites also remember how in 2010 Putin prophetically invited Bill Clinton to the Arctic expedition to save the polar bears. He didn't go, but his response was cordial.

    Leveraging Power over Putin

    Realistically, the former president may not be able to help his wife to mend relations with Russia. But future American leaders cannot simply wait Putin out -- they need a nuanced policy of incremental rewards that goes hand-in-hand with principled punishment, an approach that existed even in the Cold War chill.
    Since Putin will not stand to be ignored, the United States may have some leverage over the Kremlin. While the West should not be quick to lift its sanctions, harnessing Russia's desire to be recognized as a global power is a sound strategy. If Putin can create some goodwill by cooperating in Ukraine, the United States should consider making a few concessions. Russia's participation in the battle against the Islamic State, and its return to the rule-abiding ranks of the international community, is certainly worth the price.