Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have been quite complimentary of each other during the brash billionaire’s bid for the US presidency.
First, the presumptive Republican nominee suggested in December that he’d welcome deeper relations with Russia if he won the White House. Then, the Russian president praised Trump as “very talented” and said that he was an “absolute leader of the presidential race.”
Trump responded that it was a “great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
There’s – perhaps obviously – something sinister underlying Putin’s praise, and Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union helps put the Russian strongman’s thinking into perspective.
“Vladimir Putin has never complimented Donald Trump,” Michael Kofman, a Russia expert and public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center, told Business Insider. “He’s essentially trolling the US, and by complimenting Donald Trump, he’s essentially complimenting himself.”
“This is a validation of Russia’s political system. What Vladimir Putin was doing with Trump is saying, ‘Look, with a liberal democracy they want a strongman nationalist like me, too. The fact that they chose Trump as a major party candidate is a validation of me and my vision of politics.'”
The UK vote to leave the EU, known colloquially as the “Brexit,” signifies the rise of nationalist and isolationist thought in the Western world. As British voters decided that the UK would be better off on its own, Trump campaigns on the promise of “America first,” emphasizing the need to put US interests above all else.
It’s the sort of message Putin has been pushing for years.
“He’s saying, ‘Look, this validates my argument. If the UK publicly wants to leave, what does that say about the European Union? The European dream, it’s fake, it doesn’t work. … My system is better.’
“It’s a validation of the Russian view, it’s a validation of the domestic politics and internal messaging the Kremlin has been doing in Russia for a long time now. It’s the same thing with Donald Trump in the US.”
Therefore, by complimenting Trump’s politics, he’s essentially patting himself on the back.
“Brexit validates Russia’s view of Europe, whereas Donald Trump validates the fact that liberal democracy is not a good model and that people ultimately want a leader like Vladimir Putin,” Kofman said, explaining Putin’s thinking.
Britain leaving the EU is a stunning break from the post-World War II spirit of reconciliation and cooperation in Europe.
Kofman ticked off a list of what this signifies for Britain: “The rise of conservative sentiments, of unabashed nationalism, and of nativism, the concern over immigration, and the questioning of what truly makes for national identity.”
These are all issues close to Putin’s heart.
“These are all elements of Russian politics and state ideation driven by the Kremlin,” Kofman said.
Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations president, said on a Friday conference call that the Brexit signals “intensity, both the breadth and depth, of unhappiness with the status quo, with traditional institutions and probably more broadly a continuing disquiet with the real and perceived consequences of globalization.”
These sentiments are also present in the US.
“I think for the United States what this shows is the potential breadth and depth of disaffection against Washington,” Haass said. “And we’ve seen it. We’ve seen a lot of this in the strength of the [Bernie] Sanders and Trump campaigns. We’re seeing opposition to ‘traditional politicians.'”