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A Russian newspaper editor explains how Putin made Trump his puppet – Vox

“They consider him a stupid, unstrategic politician.”
A Russian newspaper editor explains how Putin made Trump his puppet

Mikhail Fishman is the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, an English-language weekly newspaper published in Moscow. The paper is critical of Vladimir Putin; indeed, it was targeted twice in 2015 by Russian hackers and has been attacked repeatedly by pro-Kremlin pundits.

Fishman, a Russian citizen and himself outspoken critic of Putin, has covered Russian politics for more than 15 years. For the past year, he has monitored the increasingly bizarre relationship between Putin and Trump, with a particular focus on Putin’s strategic aims. In this interview, I ask Fishman how Trump is perceived in Russia, why Putin is actively undermining global democracy, and what Russia hopes to gain from the political disorder in America.

Mikhail Fishman spoke to Sean Illing of Vox.

According to Illing, this conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

From your perch in Moscow, how do you see this strange relationship between Putin and Trump?

Mikhail Fishman

It is strange. It looks a bit irrational on Trump’s part to be sure. Why does he have this strange passion for Putin and Russia? I have to say, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories about “golden showers” and blackmailing. I don’t believe it exists and I don’t believe it’s a factor. But this, admittedly, makes the whole thing that much stranger.

Sean Illing

What makes you so skeptical of the claims in that Trump dossier?

Mikhail Fishman

Two things. One, I’ve been a political journalist for 15 years working and dealing with sources in Russia and elsewhere. And frankly, a lot of this appears shallow to me. I’m sure Russia has plenty of dirt on Trump, but I can’t accept without hard evidence much of the what I’ve heard or read.

Second, this still has the ring of a conspiracy theory, this idea that the Kremlin has blackmailed Trump into submission. I’m generally opposed, on principle, to conspiracy theorizing. So I’m just skeptical until there’s concrete evidence.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about Trump and Putin as individuals. How are they different? How are they similar?

Mikhail Fishman

I would prefer to talk about how they’re different, because those differences are so obvious and extreme. They come from very different worlds. Putin is an ex-Soviet intelligence officer with all that that implies. Trump is a colorful American businessman and showman.

In their habits, they’re radically different. Trump is a posturing performer, full of idiotic narcissism. He appears to be a disorganized fool, to be honest. Putin, on the other hand, is calculating, organized, and he plans everything. He also hides much of his personal life in a way that Trump does not.

Then there’s also the fact that Putin is so much more experienced than Trump. He has more than 15 years of global political experience. He knows how to do things, how to work the system. He makes plenty of mistakes, but he knows how to think and act. Trump is a total neophyte. He has no experience and doesn’t understand how global politics operates. He displays his ignorance every single day.

Sean Illing

What is the perception of Trump in Russia? Is he seen as an ally, a foe, or a stooge?

Mikhail Fishman

The vision of Trump is basically shaped by the Kremlin and their propaganda machine — that’s what they do. During the election campaign, Trump was depicted not as an underdog but as an honest representative of the American people who was being mistreated by the establishment elites and other evil forces in Washington.

Sean Illing

The Kremlin knew that to be bullshit, right? This was pure propaganda, not sincere reporting, and it was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton.

Mikhail Fishman

Of course. All of it was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton. Putin expected Trump to lose, but the prospect of a Clinton victory terrified him, and he did everything possible to undermine her.

Sean Illing

Why was he so afraid of a Clinton victory?

Mikhail Fishman

Because he knew that would mean an extension of Obama’s harsh orientation to Russia, perhaps even more aggressive than Obama. Putin has experienced some difficult years since his 2014 invasion of Crimea, but he didn’t expect this level of isolation. He saw — and sees — Trump as an opportunity to change the dynamic.

Sean Illing

A lot of commentators here believe the most generous interpretation of Trump’s fawning orientation to Putin and Russia is that he’s hopelessly naïve. Do you buy that?

Mikhail Fishman

That’s a good question. Why does he like Putin so much? I think Trump sees Putin as a kind of soulmate. Let’s be honest: Trump is not a reflective person. He’s quite simple in his thinking, and he’s sort of attracted to Putin’s brutal forcefulness. If anything, this is what Trump and Putin have in common.

Sean Illing

Has Putin made a puppet of Trump?

Mikhail Fishman

Of course. This is certainly what the Kremlin believes, and they’re acting accordingly. They’re quite obviously playing Trump. They consider him a stupid, unstrategic politician. Putin is confident that he can manipulate Trump to his advantage, and he should be.

Sean Illing

In other words, they see in Trump a useful idiot.

Mikhail Fishman

Exactly. The Kremlin is limited in their knowledge about what’s going on in Washington, but they see the chaos and the confusion in Trump’s administration. They see the clumsiness, the inexperience. Naturally, they’re working to exploit that.

Sean Illing

What’s the long geopolitical play for Putin? What does he hope to gain from the disorder in America?

Mikhail Fishman

The first thing he wants and needs is the symbolic legitimization of himself and Russia as a major superpower and world player that America has to do deal with as an equal. He wants to escape the isolation of Russia on the world stage, which was what the campaign in Syria was all about. Putin has grand ambitions for himself and for Russia, and nearly every move he makes is animated by this.

Sean Illing

How much of this, from Putin’s perspective, is about discrediting democracy as such?

Mikhail Fishman

He didn’t believe Trump would win, so he was preparing to sell Clinton’s victory as a fraud. And this is part of his broader message across the board, which is that democracy itself is flawed, broken, unjust. Putin actually believes this. He doesn’t believe in democracy, and this is the worldview that he basically shares with Trump: that the establishment is corrupt and that the liberal world order is unjust.

Sean Illing

But Putin’s interest in undermining democracies across the globe is about much more than his personal disdain for this form of government. He wants to point to the chaos in these countries and say to his domestic audience, “You see, democracy is a sham, and it doesn’t work anywhere.” That serves as a justification for his own anti-democratic policies. In the end, it’s about reinforcing his own power.

Mikhail Fishman

That’s true. But again, this what Putin really believes. He does not believe a true and just democracy exists anywhere. This is the worldview they’ve been spinning for years and they’ve really internalized it.

For Putin, this is very much a zero-sum game. The West is the enemy. America is the enemy. Whatever you can do to damage the enemy, you do it. The more unrest there is in America, the better positioned Russia is to work its will on the world stage. He wants to divide democratic and European nations in order to then play those divisions to his advantage.

Sean Illing

A pervasive concern in this country is that Trump admires Putin’s strongman authoritarianism, and seeks to replicate it in America. Do you think this concern is well-founded?

Mikhail Fishman

I think it is. Again, it comes to back what Trump and Putin have in common. They’re both male chauvinists. Trump probably admires the fact that Putin is the kind of guy who feels the need to ride horses shirtless; it appeals to his authoritarian instincts. But this is about much more than imagery.

They are both illiterate people in a way. They’re not widely educated. They do not believe in institutions. They see democratic institutions as burdens, impediments to their will. They don’t believe that social and political life should be sophisticated; they think it should be simple.

And this sort of thinking naturally concludes in one-man rule. I think Trump will fail, but there’s no doubt that he shares these authoritarian impulses with Putin.