On the streets of Moscow, many Russians support Donald Trump
But there is skepticism over whether Trump would follow through on his campaign promises
Editor’s Note: Jill Dougherty is currently a CNN contributor. She is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is currently a member of the Advisory Council of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
Maria Katasonova is Russian, not American.
But on Thursday afternoon, the coordinator of a youth group that supports President Vladimir Putin stood alone outside the American embassy in Moscow, wearing a black t-shirt she made herself with a picture of Hillary Clinton on it, along with the words “Crooked Hillary.”
The 21-year-old raised one poster after the other, written in both Russian and English: “The New Cold War, #StopHillary.”
And there was another word: “Peregruzka” – translated to “overcharge” in English. The word was also on a symbolic button that the then-Secretary of State handed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2009. The Americans wrongly believed it meant “reset.”
“How did the reset end?” asks Katasonova, who herself is a candidate for the lower house of the Russian Parliament. “Many people call the relationship that’s developed between the U.S. and Russia the New Cold War. Relations are very difficult.”
Katasonova tries to deliver a letter to the embassy but the Russian police at the gates politely refuse to take it, then begin to take snapshots of her and her signs.
She hands the letter to me – an “Appeal to the American People” entitled “The Seven Sins of Hillary Clinton.”
Katasonova blames Clinton for the Arab Spring, war in Libya, political corruption, and global terrorism, amongst other things.
“In Russia, all hope is on Trump, because with Hillary it is the dictatorship of force,” she says. “She’s used to solving every problem with force. It’s crazy! But Trump, we hope he is a qualified person, a person who is ready to talk, to compromise.”
Trump’s Russian fans
A 15-minute walk away on the Old Arbat pedestrian street, tourists stroll in the sun, admiring a flower display.
Vladimir, a lawyer, is taking in the sights with his wife and two kids. What is his opinion of Donald Trump?
“I have a good impression,” he says. “I think I would vote for him. He’s done a lot and you can see it. He has a big corporation, he’s earned money, he can manage things.
“I think that’s what America needs,” he adds with a smile.
“I have friends who are Americans,” he continues. “Americans are good people, very open, great! Trump says he will improve relations. I can’t tell. I believe it’s possible to improve the relationship. I really want it to happen.”
Almost everyone we meet is at least hopeful about a Trump presidency.
Elena, a transportation logistics expert, says: “Honestly, I really don’t know who is better for us, Hillary or Trump. But probably Trump is more desirable. Maybe at last we can be friends, partners, and not enemies.”
“Trump’s not a bad candidate,” says Ivan, who owns a fire alarm company. “I understand that the majority of Americans don’t like him and they’re very divided on this, but basically if you compare him to Hillary Clinton then I think from the perspective of Russia, he’s a lot better.”
Putin sets the tone
Russia’s state-owned media are overwhelmingly complimentary of Trump and critical of Clinton. President Putin set the tone when he blamed Clinton for “giving a signal” to protesters accusing the government of rigged elections in 2011.
Trump’s statement this week that he would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia – and possibly lift economic sanctions on Russia – has also scored points in Moscow.
’Russia doesn’t need any gifts’
But some Russians aren’t convinced Trump will follow through on his promises.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Senate’s International Affairs Committee, told the government news agency TASS that having a U.S. presidential candidate speak out in favor of improving relations with Russia means that “similar sentiment is becoming more and more popular in the U.S., and it can bring political points.”
But he added a caveat: “Only time will tell whether Trump is ready or, which is no less important, capable of implementing this. It is definitely too early to celebrate.”
An online poll taken among more than 10,000 readers of the state-sponsored Ria Novosti news agency confirms that caution.
Asked how they evaluate Trump’s promise to consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory, just 18.9% of respondents called it “an important signal to the world and to Russia in particular.”
A striking 77.2% called it “the usual announcement in the spirit of Trump.”
Asked whether Trump’s election would be a “gift” for Russia, 9.3% said yes, 55.3% said no, and 35.4% said “Russia doesn’t need any gifts.”
Many Russians, cynical about politics in general, are hoping for better relations with the U.S. – but they’re not betting on it.