Neither Donald Trump nor Vladimir Putin want to see a Hillary Clinton presidency
Frida Ghitis: Putin objects to Clinton because he thinks she will stand in the way of his expansionist foreign policy objectives
He also feels personally slighted by Clinton, who supported the Russians who protested Putin's re-election in 2012, writes Ghitis
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Though Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seem to agree on a number of issues, there is one they apparently don’t see eye to eye on. While Trump argues that Hillary Clinton is too weak to be president of the United States, the Russian President appears to be genuinely afraid of Clinton.
Evidence is growing that Russia is actively working to undermine Clinton’s presidential prospects. When hackers released the emails of the Democratic National Committee just hours before the Democratic National Convention, internet security specialists found the fingerprints of Russian agencies. Then came the latest hacks of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
The US government has now formally accused Russia of interfering in the US elections, and every instance of interference so far is clearly aimed at harming the Democratic candidate.
It’s easy to see why Putin fears Clinton. While the Trump campaign is trying to get voters to focus on Clinton stumbling and coughing, Putin sees her as a real threat to his objectives.
For Putin, stopping Clinton is not only an important strategic goal. It is also personal.
Back in 2011, Putin faced the biggest protests the country had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had served two terms as president, the maximum allowed, and in 2008 had become prime minister, in a maneuver that allowed him to effectively hold power while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, was president. Then he announced – to much anger, but little surprise – that he would seek a third term as president. Three months later, the opposition erupted in fury when his party won a landslide victory in legislative elections amid allegations of fraud.
Despite the frigid Moscow temperatures, thousands massed in the streets calling for fair elections and for an end to Putin’s seemingly endless rule. Signs and chants declared, “Putin is a thief!” Putin’s hold on power faced a genuine threat. Then-Secretary of State Clinton openly sided with the protesters. “The Russian people, like people everywhere,” she said, “…deserve free, fair, transparent elections.”
Putin was fuming. He blamed the protests on Clinton, accusing her of sending “a signal” to the opposition.
Putin’s personal animosity toward Clinton coincides with his larger strategic goals. In recent years, he has launched an increasingly muscular foreign (and domestic) policy. He is challenging the US, NATO and the European Union at every turn. Despite a shrinking economy – not much bigger than Mexico’s – Russia has used its military power to make it a major player on the global stage.
Russia, according to Western analysts, has mounted a campaign to “discredit the West’s liberal democratic model, and undermine trans-Atlantic ties,” manipulating Eastern European countries and “supporting the far right” against the EU. That “Kremlin Playbook” includes tampering with elections in Europe and the US.
Clinton stands in direct defiance to Putin’s vision, already partly in place, of a Russia with a sphere of influence that includes the former Soviet territory and, more loosely, Eastern Europe, alongside a weakened Europe, US and NATO.
In contrast to Trump, she has made countless comments over the years to suggest she would present a much tougher opponent to Putin’s ambitions than Barack Obama has been, saying she thinks the United States must find ways to “confine, contain, [and] deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond.”
While Clinton looks poised to toughen America’s stance, Trump’s foreign policy coincides with Russia’s. He has suggested he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which Putin captured by force from Ukraine; he might suspend economic sanctions against Russia; and would align his policies in Syria with Putin and Assad.
During the Republican primaries, Clinton came under fire for leading the Obama administration’s failed diplomatic “reset” with Russia. But the former US ambassador to Moscow, Mike McFaul, said she was deeply skeptical that the plan would bear fruit.
Once out of office, her criticism of Russia became cutting.
When Putin justified Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea as an effort to protect Russian minorities there, Clinton said it was reminiscent of Hitler’s justification for taking over parts of Eastern Europe. Putin later commented that Clinton has “never been too graceful in her statements.”
Clinton was implicitly critical of Obama’s restrained response, saying, “I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine.”
And just as Putin targeted her by name, she, too, has gone after him personally. In a speech last year, she said, “I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the costs on Russia and in particular on Putin.”
The most urgent item on the foreign policy agenda for both the United States and Russia is the civil war in Syria. There, the Trump campaign has offered conflicting ideas, but in the most recent debate Trump seemed to stand with Putin.
While Obama has maintained an extremely restrained approach to the crisis, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to multiple, so far useless, diplomatic marathons with his Russian counterpart even as Russia continues bombing civilians in support of Assad, Clinton sounds determined to impose a no-fly zone, which would defy not only Syria’s army but also Russia.
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She says she would keep the Russians informed, so no clashes occur, adding “I want them at the table,” but it is a sharp departure from the current policy, and one that must sound deeply disturbing to Putin.
After an election season that has left Americans more than a little shaken (and the rest of the world uneasy about American democracy), voters can take comfort knowing that one of the candidates kept her cool through the debates – despite the insults, the lies, and the endless challenges of the campaign.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.