Stanton, August 7 – Twenty-five years ago, Russian writer Yury Nagibin argued that Stalin and Hitler were two figures who, as a result of their common amorality, were set to become the best of friends but who, as a result of circumstances, in fact became the worst of enemies.
Something similar is happening now between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, St. Antony’s College historian Vladimir Pastukhov says, two leaders who despite some fundamental differences are ethically similar and thus view their own actions in much the same way (bbc.com/russian/blog-pastoukhov-40804883).
In a new commentary, Pastukhov argues that the two “are united by a utilitarian attitude toward law … suspicious of humanism, justice … and other Christian values” which neither sees as a guide to “practical action” in general or “even more” in political life.
“They consider any institutions as chains from which any sensible individual must seek to free himself from as quickly as possible. On the other hand, they are guided by ‘understandings,’ an unwritten code of behavior … [which set] rules of the game between those who believe in only one God – power.”
Both leaders, he continues, “are to a great degree more the products of specific financial ‘clans’ than they are representatives of specific social forces. Both are more similar to political freebooters than to the leaders of political democracies.”
And both “believe less in democracy than in justice. They are prepared to use [democracy] but they are not prepared to serve it. Both appeal to ‘the peopple’ over the heads of the elites, and both, being fully part of the rotten elites, position themselves as enemies of the establishment (oligarchate).”
Putin understood this commonality first and recognized that it presented “an unprecedented opportunity for the leaders of Russia and America (and even more broadly the West) to speak with one another in a common language.” And that was aided by the back that both Putin and Trump “sincerely believed that their ‘personal diplomacy’” would bring each enormous dividends.
According to Pastukhov, Putin was ready to sacrifice Asad, a Syrian leader he really doesn’t need, in exchange for Trump’s recognition of Putin’s right “to restore the USSR if not de jure then at least de facto.” Given Trump’s indifference to who controls Crimea, the US leader was only looking for a suitable way to get something he deems “’essential.’”
There was no shortage of Russian involvement in last year’s US elections precisely because Putin saw such an amazing opportunity. Indeed, the Russian historian argues, the Kremlin viewed Trump as one of their own, as “a kind of Armand Hammer of our time” ready to do business and thus someone who could be played and hopefully outplayed.
For Putin’s goal to be achieved, it was not required that Trump knew about Russian support in advance, Pastukhov says. That could be presented to him later as Putin’s “gift” and something that would increase Russian influence in Washington even more. But things didn’t work out as Putin hoped.
While both Putin and Trump are ethically similar, they are nonetheless embedded in completely different political systems. “Putin for Russia is an entirely organic figure. His views and values are entirely and completely part of the Russian political tradition. He is culturally identical to the chief Russian type and in a certain sense really is a leader of the majority.”’
Trump in contrast is “a real ‘enfant terrible’” for the American political tradition, and his election generated in response “a real ‘institutional storm’” as the immune system of the American political elite sought to expel this hostile bacillis” and restore what the American elite believes America to be.
Putin didn’t expect this reaction because he “cannot recognize the right to exist of any other reality besides that which he is personally accustomed to. But Trump was put in a difficult position as well. “With all his soul, he wanted to do ‘a deal’ with Putin and reach agreements. But in the existing situation, that would be political suicide.”
And Trump’s “instinct for self-preservation” has led him to discover not only that “Ukraine is not Russia” but that “neither is America.” As a result, he has transformed himself even more than those opposed to him from “the great friend” of Moscow to his sworn enemy and his attitude from “almost love” to “almost hatred.”
In many ways, Pastukhov says, “this is simply Nixon in reverse, who all his life was an anti-communist but ended with détente and the Helsinki Final Act.” But this has the ironic consequence that the two leaders who wanted to reach agreement are moving “step by step” toward the global confrontation” they had wanted to avoid.