Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and why Russia is such a big part of the US election

What do claims about the Republican candidate’s relationship with America’s old foe mean for the race to the presidency?

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Back in 2012, Barack Obama mocked his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, for calling Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” the President snarked in their final debate.

How things have changed in just four years. Now, Democrats want you to know that the Russians are the baddies, and that the Republican nominee is too soft on them.

Hillary Clinton and her team have seized upon the numerous plaudits Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have given each other. Back in December, Putin called Trump “a very bright person, talented without any doubt”, and welcomed his desire for a closer relationship with Russia.

Trump repaid the compliments. When challenged that Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries”, Trump responded: “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”

In fact, Trump has boasted of his “relationship” with Putin as one of his foreign policy credentials. He claimed that, “I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates” (despite the fact that they appeared in separate interviews, filmed on different continents). He also predicted that, as President, “I would probably get along with him very well.”

And more recently, speculation has emerged that Russia is trying to ease Trump’s path to the White House. Just before the Democratic convention last month, WikiLeaks published more than 19,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s servers, and experts have linked the hacking to Russia.

Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies at KCL, wrote that: “The forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations is very strong.”

Trump even encouraged them to do more hacking: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will be probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That’ll be next.”

It’s easy to see why Putin would rather have Trump in the White House than Clinton. Trump has praised Russia’s attacks against Syrian rebels on behalf of Assad’s regime, and encouraged more.

He’s also suggested that the US leave it to European countries to oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. Most significantly, he has said that, if he were President, the US would not necessarily honour its obligations to defend other Nato members from attack by Russia: “I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”

“In the intelligence business,” wrote former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, “we would say that Mr Putin had recruited Mr Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

The isolationist half of Trump’s position does have some appeal to a section of the American public weary of the cost, in both money and lives, of intervention abroad.

In April, the Pew Research Center found that 41 per cent of Americans think that “the US does too much in helping solve world problems”, and 57 per cent want it to “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems the best they can”. Last year, just 49 per cent said they had a favourable view of Nato.

However, Trump’s pro-Russia stance is much less popular. American public opinion of Russia has worsened dramatically since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, with the proportion holding an unfavourable view of his country rising from 44 per cent to 65 per cent, according to Gallup polls.

The figures for the past three years have been the highest since the end of the Cold War. Last year, Pew found that 56 per cent of Americans thought the US should use military force to defend a Nato ally against Russia, while just 37 per cent said it shouldn’t.

As usual, having belatedly realised that his comments may harm his electoral chances, Trump has attempted to disavow them. He’s said he was “being sarcastic” when he asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. (This led Stephen Colbert to demonstrate brilliantly that everything Trump says makes sense if you assume he’s being sarcastic).

And in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump declared, “I have no relationship with Putin,” and denied his previous claims to the contrary.

He attempted to sound tough on Putin, but only ended up sounding foolish: “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand,” he said. “He’s not going into Ukraine. You can mark it down, you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” Stephanopoulos had to point out, of course, that Putin’s there already.

Which testifies to the broader reason why the Clinton campaign wants to focus on Trump’s statements about Russia, as they did in a video last week. It’s about presenting Trump as a candidate who would jeopardise national security, but also one who is ignorant about the world, who doesn’t understand the issues, and who constantly lies and changes his mind. He’s not making their task very hard.

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics.