Butterfly Effect: Is Putin Giving Up on Trump?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
President Trump's closest global friends and allies are building bridges with Joe Biden. That should worry the White House as much as the polls.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rarely gives unscripted interviews, the former KGB agent in him still wary of anything resembling the free press. So when he takes the trouble to give an elaborate answer to any question, it means much more than, say, a rambling tweet from President Donald Trump.
Which is why it’s worth noting a Putin interview from last week that has gone almost unnoticed in the West. Asked about the U.S. presidential election and whether he could imagine working with a White House that has Joe Biden as its inhabitant, Putin didn’t demur or stick to boilerplate answers. Instead, he grabbed the chance to highlight what he said were areas of “ideological” resonance between Russia and the Democratic Party.
Like Biden and the Democrats, he said, Russia was supportive of the movement for racial justice in America, and referred to how the Soviet Union had historically backed the African American community struggle for equality. He said the Democratic Party was more closely aligned with Russia’s view of social democratic ideas than European political parties. And he pointed to Biden’s support for the revival of New START — a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty signed by the Obama administration that is currently scheduled to expire next year and that Trump has threatened to kill. Russia wants the treaty to continue. “Candidate Biden has said openly that he was ready to extend the New START or to sign a new strategic offensive reductions treaty,” Putin said. “This is a very serious element of our potential collaboration in the future.”
All this from the same Putin who in 2016 led a targeted attack on the integrity of the U.S. election to try and help President Donald Trump win, and under whose leadership Russia is trying to interfere in 2020 again, according to the FBI.
What’s going on?
The answer, it appears, lies in the secret cables that the Washington embassies of Russia and multiple other nations are sending back to their capitals, carrying their assessment of where the American presidential race is headed. Tracking political winds in any major country is a key task of foreign diplomats based there. American diplomats in other nations do so all the time too. A look at history tells us trained diplomats are more often right than wrong. And three weeks before the Nov. 3 vote, the signs are worrying for Trump: Some of the leaders and regimes that he has counted on as close friends or partners are now instead building bridges with Biden’s campaign.
According to The Sunday Times, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to distance himself from Trump. The U.S. president has repeatedly called Johnson a “friend.” When the British PM was suffering from COVID-19 in April, Trump asked American pharma firms to see if they could help his “good friend.” But Johnson, who has previously also talked up their friendship as good for Britain, has now reportedly asked his ministers to build contacts with senior representatives in the Biden campaign.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held two public rallies with Trump since last fall, in thinly veiled attempts to get the influential Indian American community — the wealthiest ethnic community in the U.S. — to vote for the president. The Trump campaign claimed those rallies amounted to an endorsement from Modi, though the Indian foreign ministry disagreed. The two leaders have hugged and praised each other on multiple occasions. On Modi’s 70th birthday in September, Trump referred to him as a “great leader, loyal friend.” And when Trump tested positive for COVID-19 days later, Modi tweeted wishing his “friend” a speedy recovery.
But that bromance too has limits, it seems. Modi has already created an opening for himself with the Biden campaign. Amit Jani, the Biden campaign’s director of outreach to the Asian American Pacific Islander community, is a personal family friend of the Indian prime minister. Jani’s father has hosted Modi during his U.S. visits since the 1990s. And Jani publicly celebrated on social media platforms when Modi returned to power in 2019.
And returning to Putin, some experts are quietly indicating that they believe Russia might have mellowed its interference in the 2020 election in these final weeks before the vote, with polls suggesting that Biden could be consolidating a substantial lead. The latest OZY-0ptimus forecast shows Trump with only a 15 percent chance of victory.
To be sure, the sophistication with which Johnson, Modi and Putin are hedging their bets is harder to pull off for those without the political finesse of these leaders. Take Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who accused Biden of issuing “coward threats” at the end of September, after the Democratic presidential nominee suggested that foreign nations pay Brazil $20 billion to safeguard the Amazon rainforests.
And whatever they might say in the event that Biden does win, the political philosophies of Putin, Modi and Johnson align more closely with Trump’s worldview than with the Democrats on key issues. An America under Trump withdrawing from the world helps Putin, the president’s anti-Muslim and sectarian agenda suits Modi well, and his inward-looking, anti-immigrant approach fits with Johnson’s Brexit plans.
But that’s all the more reason for Trump to be concerned. The polls got 2016 wrong, but Putin got it right — from his perspective at least. With the Russian president now touting “ideological” affinity with Democrats, the Moscow weathervane might be changing direction in 2020. Will America, too?
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi