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How Russia’s Vladimir Putin took centre stage in the US election

American intelligence agencies have accused Russia of hacking into the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and leaking thousands of messages from and about Hillary Clinton. The episode is a reflection of the gulf between the two candidates, and of the tectonic geopolitical shifts to come if Donald Trump wins the presidency.
Russian president Vladimir Putin meets US president Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP Photo
Russian president Vladimir Putin meets US president Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP Photo

In the previous 56 US presidential elections, no candidate has had to suspect that a rival may have colluded with a foreign power to scuttle his campaign. But then again, this is no ordinary presidential race.

American intelligence agencies have accused Russia of hacking into the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and leaking thousands of messages from and about Hillary Clinton.

In a separate leak of emails, released by WikiLeaks, one of Mrs Clinton’s advisers called it a “reasonable conclusion” that Russia had orchestrated its hack to help the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

The hacked emails episode is a reflection of the gulf between the two candidates, and of the tectonic geopolitical shifts to come if Mr Trump wins the presidency.

Throughout his campaign, Mr Trump has professed admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“He’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” Mr Trump said in September.

In turn, Mr Putin praised Mr Trump as “a colourful and talented man”. In June, he said: “Mr Trump has declared that he’s ready for the full restoration of Russian-American relations. Is there anything bad there? We all welcome this, don’t you?”

The relationship between the Russian president and the US Republican candidate was “disconcerting”, said Marcel van Herpen, the director of the Cicero Foundation, a Netherlands-based think tank.

“Until now, never in post-World War Two US politics has one of the presidential candidates so openly expressed sympathy with the leader of a country which opposes the US everywhere and which considers the US as its main foe,” said Mr van Herpen, the author of new book Putin’s Propaganda Machine.

During Mr Putin’s presidency, ties between Russia and the US have eroded considerably, particularly over the issue of Syria. Mr Putin has backed the incumbent Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, while president Barack Obama has supported a coalition of opposition parties.

Mrs Clinton has called Mr Putin “a bully” during her campaign and in her memoir Hard Choices, published in 2014, she wrote: “Strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.”

During the third and final presidential debate, she suggested that Mr Trump was the Russian president’s “puppet”.

As president, Mrs Clinton will likely carry that firmness into transactions with Russia. In the first debate of the Democratic primaries last October, she broke with Mr Obama’s policies in calling for a no-fly zone to be established over Syria.

“It’s important ... that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad,” Mrs Clinton said.

“I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table.”

Mr van Herpen said that Mrs Clinton “can be expected to be stricter than Obama”, while Mr Trump, for all his stated affinities with Russia’s president, could be “soft on Putin”.

“This could lead to Trump giving in to demands made by Putin – on the Crimea, on Ukraine, on Syria.”

In Europe, Washington’s counterweight to Moscow has traditionally been the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), formed after the Second World War. Through the Cold War and even since it ended, Europe’s security against the Soviet Union and now Russia has been assured by the US-backed military might of Nato.

Mrs Clinton “considers Nato a pillar of American foreign and security policy”, Mr van Herpen said.

In contrast, Mr Trump believes “Europe is free riding on American security spending”, said Manuel Muniz, the director of the programme on transatlantic relations at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs.

Mr Trump has said during his campaign that he expects European countries to meet their target of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. Countries that fail to meet this target should not be able to count on US military support in an emergency, he said.

This proclamation violates Article 5 of the Nato charter, which deems an attack on one Nato member to be akin to an attack upon all members. Nato invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after the 9/11 attacks, during the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

Mr Muniz called Mrs Clinton “a committed transatlanticist” but he worried that Mr Trump’s vision was isolationist, and that, as president, he would withdraw his country from its allies.

“With a Trump presidency would come a questioning of US engagement around the world,” Mr Muniz said. “For those of us who think that US leadership is necessary to solve most crises, and that overall American engagement in world affairs is a positive issue, these can only be worrying developments.”

The candidates’ Nato policies reflect their Russia policies, Mr Muniz said.

“Much depends on the dialogue with the Russians and the ability of Obama to leave the White House having made some progress on that front,” he said. “Relations with Russia will remain tense for the foreseeable future, with or without a Clinton presidency.”

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ssubramanian@thenational.ae

Updated: November 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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