One brilliant publicist salutes another. President Putin declares that presidential candidate Donald Trump is ‘a very bright and talented man’. Nodding at the conventions of international non-endorsement, he adds an ambiguous conclusion: ‘It is not our business to assess his merits; that is up to the US voters. But he is an absolute leader of the presidential race.’
You can see it from Putin’s point of view. When the other Republican candidates feign contempt for him, what’s not to like in the Donald? At the latest debate for the Republican presidential nomination, held in Las Vegas on 15 December, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie promised to shoot Russian planes out of the sky over Syria, while John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, wanted to punch the country which had got away with so much for so long ‘on the nose’.
By contrast, Trump professes admiration for the Russian leader, ‘a man highly respected within his own country and beyond.’
Trump reminds us that the sun quite often shines at the summit of Russo-American relations. Links between Putin and Obama are professionally brisk, but look at the reality: John Kerry’s low key and steady hand in last week’s talks with the Russian leader about Syria, which the winner of the Republican field would undoubtedly have to replicate if he or she were elected to national office. George W. Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes in 2001 and liked what he saw. Boris Yeltsin loved to give Bill Clinton a squeeze. The first George Bush, and before him Ronald Reagan, romanced Gorbachev, who basked in the attention. During the 1970s, Brezhnev swapped jolly hospitality with Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Khrushchev and Kennedy pushed each other to the limit of nuclear peace, but in November 1963, Khrushchev was briefly lost in grief for the dead young president.
So when Hillary wins the presidential election next November, she and Putin really will have the chance to reset their relationship, and to extend the uptick in Russian-American ties. Putin can continue to make mischievous comments about US politics if he likes, but he’ll have met his match. One perennial pro will recognize another.