Russian Hardliners Gain from US Putin-Bashing

The harsh U.S. rhetoric denouncing Russian President Putin is having the adverse effect in Russia of strengthening hard-line “populists” in upcoming elections who think Putin’s ruling party is too soft on the U.S., reports Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Last week, Hillary Clinton told reporters on her campaign plane that the Russians are trying to disrupt the U.S. elections to discredit the process and sow discord among Americans. This goes one step further than her previous charges of Russian influence thought the “Kremlin’s candidate,” Donald Trump, or still earlier, the claim that the Democratic National Committee’s server had been hacked by intelligence services reporting to Vladimir Putin. Of course, all these charges were made without proof.

Meanwhile, in the Russian Federation, where folks are facing their own national elections on Sept. 18, a kind of mirror-image denunciation of foreign (meaning American) interference in their domestic politics is also heard from many in the Russian Establishment.

Russian marchers honoring family members who fought in World War II. (Photo from RT)

Russian marchers honoring family members who fought in World War II. (Photo from RT)

In the past week, the widely respected Levada Center, best known for its public opinion polls, found itself accused by federal authorities of being a “foreign agent” due to revenues it earns from multinational companies for whom it does marketing studies. Its director said that if the label sticks, the Center may be forced to close its doors.

Also, this past week, the International Republican Institute (IRI), a “non-governmental organization” chaired by Sen. McCain and with an operation in Moscow, was declared a threat to Russian national security and ordered to halt its activities in Russia. (Most of IRI’s money comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. State Department and the U.S.-government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, whose president has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ouster.)

But the way the elections in both the U.S. and Russia are taking shape has considerably more in common than these complaints of outside interference. I see a much bigger common factor in the growing, possibly decisive role of populism in both Russia and the U.S. this year.

In the United States, the rise of populism and its possible victory at the polls in November over the opposition of the political establishment of the Democratic and Republican parties have been obvious from the start and throughout the progression of the candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a recent full-page analytical article headlined, “The Trump Phenomenon,” the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s most serious and well-written daily newspapers, identifies economics as the driving force behind the populist wave that Trump is riding. Specifically, he made himself a voice of the millions of working-class Americans who have suffered over the last 30 years from the deindustrialization and outsourcing which have been part and parcel of the globalization that successive U.S. administrations from the two mainstream parties have actively promoted through “free trade” deals.

Meanwhile, the foreign policy component of Trump’s agenda gives voice to the views of the majority of Americans who consistently over the past 30 years have said they want their country to stop being the world’s policeman and to pursue more peaceful policies by acting in consensus as an equal partner with the world’s other major powers.

This resistance to the Establishment’s insistence on U.S. global dominance has been a constant feature of Pew polls, including one last spring that found nearly six in ten Americans (or 57 percent) feeling that the U.S. should deal with its problems and other countries should deal with their own. Only 37 percent thought the U.S. should help other countries deal with their problems.

But this attitude has been dismissed by the foreign policy establishment as revealing nothing more than public ignorance of the world’s dangers and complexities, a preoccupation with consumerism, and an unwillingness to accept hardships for the common security by exercising global leadership.

Consequently, one can summarize and conclude that Donald Trump’s planned foreign policy has deep populist roots. His proposals to find dialogue with Russia on common security interests are neither a sign of his being “Putin’s candidate” or of arbitrarily and capriciously adopting a position solely to run against what the Establishment is saying for the sake of drawing attention to himself.

Hard-line Russian ‘Populism’

By contrast, the curious and important thing to note about Russian populism is that it is driven far less by economics, although the Russian citizenry is hurting badly from the third year of recession that came out of the fall in energy prices and Western sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

The driving factor of Russian populism is instead national pride over the reunification with Crimea and the country’s resistance to U.S. and European punishment. This populism is expressed through belt-tightening, import substitutions and other measures.

Russians have traditionally been a complaining people but my own reading of the popular mood not so much form media as from talking to ordinary people — and especially to ordinary people over the fence and in the grocery store of the hamlet where I have a summer home, 80 kilometers south of St. Petersburg – is that they are getting by and making the best of it without fuss.

Populism has merged with patriotism, as shown by the massively successful May 9 celebrations of Russia’s World War II victory which channeled a wellspring of emotion into the Immortal Regiment marches in cities and towns across the country. This patriotic pride explains the 82 percent approval rating that Vladimir Putin currently enjoys.

Translated into electoral politics, the patriotic sense of mind means that Russian populism will likely bring a turn to the right at the voting booths this Sunday. Although the governing party United Russia advertises itself as “the party of the President [Putin],” it also is the party of Dmitry Medvedev, who is its chairman. As prime minister, Medvedev is still seen as a liberal who promotes free-market economics rather than state-guided reindustrialization. He is seen as soft on the U.S. and soft on Europe.

In other words, the street says the governing party, United Russia, will not retain its majority of seats in the Duma and its showing may dip as low as 30 percent of the vote, a reaction not to Putin but to the party’s perceived lack of toughness against the West. The consequence would likely be a coalition cabinet, bringing in ministers from the runners-up. And who might those runners-up be?

In the U.S. media, there is the very mistaken view that Russia has no opposition parties. That view is predominantly only because the U.S. State Department and Official Washington’s specialist institutes and think tanks disdain any politicians and movements in Russia that are not on the U.S. payroll. Unless you are Yabloko or Parnas, you are not an opposition party, so our experts tell us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am persuaded that the position of being the second largest party in the Duma will be hotly contested between the Communists, who throughout the 1990s actually weer the country’s majority party, and the Liberal Democratic (LDPR) party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which was the first non-Communist party founded back in what was still Soviet Russia.

On questions of economic policy, those two parties stand at opposite poles. But on the question of foreign policy, they are both more royalist than the king. Judging by the level of paid outdoor advertising on highways around the metropolises of St. Petersburg and Moscow, I would put my money on an LDPR high turnout and vote on Sept. 18.

In what little exposure U.S. media has given Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the past, Western readers might assume that is just a buffoon who has served the Kremlin’s interests by drawing nationalists away from the Communists and so reducing its threat. But my reading of Zhirinovsky, including from seeing and sparring with him up close, is that his buffoonery has been calculated as has Donald Trump’s.

Playing the clown and wearing the outlandish bright red sports jacket on TV spared Zhirinovsky from being taken too seriously by the Establishment even as he delivered below the belt punches against the powers-that-be.

A Challenge to Putin’s Party

In a feature television program celebrating his 70th birthday in July, Zhirinovsky made it clear that in his 27 years in parliament he has seen it all, understands very well how the Kremlin has maintained power by one dirty trick after another. In particular, he explained to the Pervy Kanal presenter and journalist Vladimir Soloviev how the single-mandate scheme which is being used in 2016 to complement the party list system of electing Duma deputies gives an unfair advantage to United Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria "Toria" Nuland, addresses Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting room at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on July 14, 2016. [State Department Photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria “Toria” Nuland, addresses Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting room at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on July 14, 2016. [State Department Photo]

The scheme, which was taken from practices in some West European democracies, has been popularized as a means of bringing into parliament at least some deputies who are well known and dedicated to the district that elects them. But since United Russia has more candidates with more experience in power across the country, it can profit best from this scheme.

In LDPR’s full-page advertisement-campaign manifesto in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Zhirinovsky and his associates denounce another feature of this year’s national elections: the appearance on the ballot of a half-dozen ersatz parties, parties that long ago combined forces and disappeared as separate entities. Zhirinovsky is calling them “subsidiaries” of United Russia, launched solely for the purpose of sopping up protest votes that otherwise might go to Duma parties like his own.

It is to be expected that there will be no vote-rigging or other illegal abuses in Sunday’s national elections such as set off the dramatic protests during the last Duma elections in December 2011. The tricks that Zhirinovsky is denouncing are legal even if they are unethical. They are no different from what goes on in mature democracies like the U.S. (gerrymandering and giving built-in advantages to the two major political parties, for example) for the purpose of “managed democracy,” which is by no means a made-in-Russia concept.

The astute critique of the Russian elites in power which Zhirinovsky puts forth underlines the justified fear of United Russia that it will lose control of parliament. Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky has changed his wardrobe to a classy business suit and changed his demeanor to almost calm, measured speech as I saw a few days ago when we both took part in the Pervy Kanal’s leading political talk show, “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev.”

This was my second chance to observe him up close in the past four months and the difference was palpable. You could sense that he feels power within reach and is hoping for a ministerial portfolio in the new post-election government.

A good showing for Zhirinovsky’s party on Sept. 18 and demotion to minority party for United Russia may well mean the renunciation of any lingering hopes of getting along with or being buddies with the U.S. It could result in new, harder-line marching orders for Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, who has been the principal negotiator with the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

On Sunday, before the show, I had a five minute tete-a-tete with TV host Vladimir Soloviev about Trump. Given Soloviev’s position as the darling of Russian state television, the man who gets to do the big interviews with Vladimir Putin, I think it is safe to say that Soloviev represents a significant part of the Kremlin establishment. And he does not want to see Trump elected.

This runs directly counter to everything the American neocons, the Democratic standard bearer and the mainstream U.S. media are saying about the Putin-Trump “relationship.” But it is perfectly logical. Soloviev sees Trump as volatile and unpredictable. In this resistance to a potentially unpredictable Trump, we see characteristic Russian trust in the virtues of stability. Better the devil you know…etc.

But there is also something else going on. Soloviev, like a large swath of Russians both in and out of power, enjoys seeing the U.S. as a malicious enemy. In a direct mirror image of the U.S. budget process, having such an enemy is good for those seeking resources for the Russian armed forces and their military-industrial complex.

The bottom line is that the rise of populists in Russia may bring in more hard-liners on foreign policy just when – if Trump were to prevail – the rise of populists in the United States may bring in doves.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.

14 comments for “Russian Hardliners Gain from US Putin-Bashing

  1. MEJanss
    September 16, 2016 at 18:54

    I read from another article that the communist party was drawing less than 10 percent of the electorate while the LDPR was drawing much higher than normal numbers. Anybody know the numbers for this election?

    • Gilbert Doctorow
      September 17, 2016 at 01:04

      From an internal document of the Communist Party leadership that I received after this article was written and which I will discuss in my post-election analysis, I see that the CP rank and file are concerned over polls showing the LDPR has pulled ahead of them as the likely number 2 party in the Duma after United Russia.
      As I mention, the advertising spend of LDPR has been very high in this election. Their billboards are very present on major highways around cities.
      But in state television, there is no question that United Russia has run away with the race. Their spots are most numerous in the Campaign 2016 advertising intermissions at all hours of the day.. LDPR follows in intensity. Whereas the Communist Party is almost absent, with no more television spots than the most insignificant parties in the race.
      Is this related to funds available to these parties? Or is it heavy handed policies of the state television management? So far these questions are not being discussed in Russia publicly. After the race you can be sure they will be debated.

      Latest polls suggest that United Russia may pick up as much as 40% of the seats in the Duma, with LDPR getting maybe 13% and the CP half of that,followed closely by Just Russia, the Social Democratic party. But these estimates may be quite inaccurate. These are the same 4 parties that made up the outgoing Duma’s membership.

      It is possible, but unlikely, that Just Russia will not make it into the Duma this time if its voting results come in under 5%.
      One thing is certain: the “opposition parties” Yabloko and Parnas, which alone enjoy the attention of the US Government and mainstream media, will not get the 5% of the vote needed to enter the Duma. They have no popular support.

  2. Jean Ranc
    September 16, 2016 at 14:33

    Sorry, Gilbert, but as a clinical psychologist with 40 years experience inside US health care…I have diagnosed Donald Trump as a psychopath: a demagogue, a racist, a buffoon, an opportunist who says one thing today, another tomorrow, is for Putin now but could just as easily declare war on Russia if he were elected: anything to promote Himself. If the herd of followers who believe him, had any sense they could have voted for a true populist, Bernie Sanders, a man of great integrity with a decades-long record of good government works. Your blind belief in Trump makes me wonder whether your perception of Russia is distorted as well??? Never-the-less, I am absolutely appalled by the Russia-basing-Putin-demonizing by our “Liberal” Establishment which bought and is desperately trying to sell us would-be-Empress Hillary. As for my vote…I’m waiting to see whether either of them drop dead or is carried out raving mad…to be replaced by someone…anyone! who would be better. John Kerry is my choice because he’s proving he can work with the Russians, Iranians and everyone else in the world I bet. After all, as a Vietnam Vet, he led their protest against that stupid US intervention.

    • FrankZappa
      September 20, 2016 at 16:33

      How would you diagnose yourself?

      “Bernie Sanders, a man of great integrity”

      This is the same man that said from the very start that he would support the nominee who he knew would be clinton. The same man that said Saudi Arabia should get more involved in the ME. They haven’t done enough damage to Syria and Yemen? They’re also one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

      I was channel surfing when the dem debates were televised on PBS. I decided to take a few minutes to see what Bernie had to say. After muting clinton for a minute or two, I listened to bernie say “Russian aggression!” in a nasty tone twice within a minute or two of listening. I immediately quit wasting my time listening to any more of that crap.

      I’d also think a man of integrity might point out how corrupt the nomination process was. He had little to nothing to say about that.

      I think the people that said he was a sheepdog were correct. Bernie appears nothing more than an instrument to blunt any impetus for an egalitarian change.

      I hope you weren’t one of those people that thought obama might actually present some hope for a positive change. Glen Ford and Matt Gonzalez laid it out pretty clearly months before the election, who and what obama would be. I couldn’t believe the oligarchy trotted out that same old crap so soon after using it in 92 with the man from hope who was going to bring us change.

      Trump or Clinton? Whose worse? I don’t know.

      If I waste my time, I guess it’s Stein.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    September 16, 2016 at 01:58

    It’s just a war game. We start first by picking out a villain. Our corporate media takes it from there, by demonizing our new villain to hell and back is what they do. Then suddenly citizens are hearing all kind of evil stories where our villain is throwing babies I mean to tell you babies out of incubators left and right, and then we go bomb this SOB villain.

    Although now a days it’s a lot easier to go to war, because without a draft, and the public desensitized so much as to have the word ‘war’ become a distant faint drone background noise is a perfect seating for the Continuity of Government to march onward and upward without interference. We the people are actually a part of their war game. The public plays the part which just goes on about their way not paying to close of attention to all this war, and that’s probably for the better, because it’s cheaper than breaking out all the SWAT’s that it would take to squash a citizens riot.

    September 11 2001 was a day of many war games. On 911 did the bad guys with the black armbands win? Are we still living inside of a on going war game? Every nation has its own continuity of government plan, but my question is to if since 911 the US ever come out of the COG mode? Are we still living it…I mean the war games?

    The Constitution has been replaced with the Patriot Act. Learned constitutional legal scholars like John Yoo conjure up an interpretation of the law as to whether torture is legal….with this one, have we not gone down a slippery slope? Why are we even talking like this, did somebody watch too much of 24? Local law enforcement is armed with military grade equipment, and some of our finest get really lucky they get to go to another bad ass democracy Israel and take lessons from the people who shoot Palestintian boys who throw rocks at these Israeli’s, because it gets cramped inside their allotted cage of confinement. We are so in over our heads with war, and all things terrorist (keep your eye on Putin) that no one is even talking about the 6.5 trillion dollars that in June which was reported missing by the Inspector General of the DOD.

    This is still a good country. The people on the whole are some of the world’s best. What needs changed in Washington DC is a new mind set. A whole new value system, and one which may accept diversity while upholding every human beings birthright to equally. What ever you may call these people, whether they be Neocon’s, H2Pers, Zionist, Corporatist, it’s all the same. These war Devils see the world as a chess board. Each move is vital in order to narrow all the world minerals and riches down in to one. This isn’t business, this is robbery. Yet it would be one thing it were just robbery, but this robbery led to a lot of people dying. So now it’s murder.

    I don’t have much hope that there is a chance we could stop this destructive mayhem at the ballot box, so we must stay active by whatever methods you may manage.

    • Kiza
      September 16, 2016 at 07:06

      Hello Joe, very, very nicely written. Here is another, cynical view of the US Establishment:

      Both candidates are horrible, but the only good thing about this election is that it polarises US into The Established Elite versus The Rest. It will be very hard to remain naive after all this electioneering. Also, millions of US people will realize what I have written a while ago – that the function of the MSM machine is to present a barrier to change and human progress, far, far removed from informing and entertaining people.

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 16, 2016 at 11:18

        People are tired of the status quo, and you can see it in this presidential race. The way I see it all that this election is good for is to allow the major media outlets to rake in the dough from these various campaigns. Our American election process has been handed over to the media, and that’s all that the election represents, because they sure as hell don’t represent the people’s needs.

  4. Erik
    September 15, 2016 at 19:13

    The warmonger tyrants over democracy must create foreign enemies to demand domestic power; they must betray their country by creating security problems so as to pose falsely as protectors. Certainly the warmongers of the US and Russia have common cause in mutual provocations to build up a new cold war. I would not be surprised to find investors in both MICs trying to create demand for weapons.

    It would be interesting to know about oligarchy control of mass media in Russia. Are they able to conjure public fears there as they do in the US? What are the forces that keep Russia’s military planning defensive, other than their recollection of Napoleon and Hitler? Do they need to distract the public there with the classical “bread and circus” routine to rob them with their left hand?

    Also, how does Mr. Doctorow see the past and future role of Russia in central Asia? It seems that the USSR had the massive burden of moving those states toward enlightened government, in which the US should have left it alone (in AfPak). The US apparently has not and does not have any plans to benefit any nation, let alone central Asia. Why do we not agree to let China and Russia develop those nations, and move to primarily benefit S and C America ourselves, with cooperation on Africa?

  5. jo6pac
    September 15, 2016 at 17:04

    Interesting, if the populist win they’ll be playing right into the game plan of Amerikas neo-conns. How sad for them.

    • September 15, 2016 at 20:46

      … the neo-cons want a Russia that will strike first?
      confident that Russia’s nuclear deterrent has been undermined,
      and that nato member’s conventional forces will be able to deal with all of their foot-soldiers.
      the war profiteers are in need of another perl harbour.
      how sad for all of us … ON EARTH

  6. James lake
    September 15, 2016 at 16:14

    With Mrs Clinton favourite to be elected. She can’t let a day go by without russia bashing
    Things will get worse.

  7. Andoheb
    September 15, 2016 at 15:57

    Trump may be a dove re Russia, but is extremely hawkish re Iran. But that is better than HIllary who is hawkish on both Russia and Iran.

  8. Joe Kapoe
    September 15, 2016 at 15:32

    This is a very enlightening article. One puzzle though. To my mind, it’s a stretch to equate Trump supporters as “doves.” If economics is “the driving force behind the populist wave that Trump is riding,” according to the article Doctorow refers to, it’s hasn’t been clear that Trump would have doves flocking to him because of his foreign policy proposals. There’s some dissonance about lumping all Trump supporters in the populist tent. Doctorow seems to gloss over the fact that a very large swath of voters in this country feel that neither of the leading candidates represents their interests. It’s ironic that voters in Russia appear to have more options than voters here in the US. If Doctorow’s impression of the election in Russia is true in that “there will be no vote rigging or other illegal abuses in Sunday’s national elections,” then those organizations like NED, the IRI, USAID and all the establishment news outlets will have their work cut out for them to keep voters here in the dark.

  9. James lake
    September 15, 2016 at 13:44

    This is no surprise Russians have high Internet access and translations of Western newspapers plus news channels like bbc, fox, cnn.
    They feel a sense of outrage at how their country is represented
    How their president is demonised
    But most of all Ukraine – their brother nation across the border has been destroyed and turned into a home for fascists

    What is there to like about the west.

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