Donald Trump is a self-professed admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. He and his more incredulous supporters will likely see this week’s Russian election as further proof that Putin is a “strong” leader. But a strong Putin has meant a weak Russia, and its worth considering what this means for a Trump presidency.
The vote in Russia went badly, as they do. Putin parliamentary allies won easily, as was expected. And, as was expected, evidence of widespread voter fraud emerged immediately. There was footage from surveillance cameras showing election workers literally stuffing ballot boxes. Western journalists observed specific polling stations and reported official vote counts far higher than the actual number of voters who showed up.
According to the Moscow Times, statistical analysis of results show that up to half of the votes for United Russia, Putin’s ruling party, may be fraudulent. And the Russian physicist Sergey Shpilkin compared the distribution of votes cast to a normal bell curve and concluded that the real voter turnout was probably just 37 percent, implying more than a quarter of all votes counted were never actually cast.
Russia has never been considered a bastion of law and order, but in the past decade under Putin, corruption has flourished. But don’t take my word for it, ask the Russians. Transparency International surveys show that 79 percent of Russians believe it is a serious problem. A startling 85 percent of Russians believe that “government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest.” The percent who believe the court system is corrupt? 84 percent. The police? 89 percent. Politicians and public officials? 92 percent.
In January of this year, senior US Treasury officials went on the record stating that Putin himself was corrupt and that the US government had known that for years. Adam Szubin, the Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, stated: “We’ve seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalizing those who he doesn’t view as friends using state assets.” (One is reminded of the fact Trump used 9/11 recovery funds for his own benefit.)
And then there is the Olympic level system of cronyism that Putin has created. After taking office, Putin methodically moved power and wealth into the hands of a small circle of friends. Some of these infamous oligarchs were picked from relative obscurity and elevated to unimaginable wealth and influence, and all are completely reliant on Putin. Vladimir Yakunin is an excellent example. A former KGB spy, like Putin, he was eventually given one of the world’s largest railroad monopolies and oversaw millions of staff, until his son took out a UK passport. Feeling slighted, Putin simply took it all away. A strong Russian president means the legal system, the economy, the corporate world, are all fragile and vulnerable to the new czars whims. Likewise, Trump’s Twitter feed is evidence enough of his habit of suddenly attacking others based on the smallest slight.
Putin, the bare-chested strong man, has weakened Russia most notably in the international sphere. While Russia still controls a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it’s hard to imagine they would be there if the decision was taken now. According to the latest numbers from the World Bank, its economy is not much larger than Brazil’s, and its army is ranked just between North Korea and Pakistan.
This fall in influence is due mostly to the reckless and self-defeating adventures Putin has launched one after another, leaving Russian more isolated than it has been in possibly a hundred years. A perfect example is the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. A former KGB officer, he had fled to London and became a outspoken critic. Putin ordered him assassinated with one of the only substances in the world, the uniquely radioactive polonium-210, that virtually guaranteed investigators could trace its journey back to Moscow and right to the steps of the KGB.
The list of similarly ham fisted decisions only gets grander from there, culminating in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, deny the thousands of uniformed Russian soldiers in Russian tanks were his, and shoot down a Malaysian airliner. The resulting international sanctions have further choked off Moscow’s influence and prestige, leaving Putin to cling to equally isolated leaders like Syria’s pariah President Bashar Assad.
It is easy to see why a man like Donald Trump admires Putin. They both share a penchant for posturing, a fetish for unhindered power, a disdain for institutions and for the law, an extremely high self-regard, and a tendency to act unpredictably. So, if you are comfortable with Trump admiring Putin’s leadership style, then you must also be comfortable for Putin’s results. Donald Trump will not more make America great again, he will remake it in the image of Putin’s Russia — weakened and isolated.
Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat.