It has not been since the “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s that Russia has figured so prominently in the US Presidential election. Average Russian citizens, for their part, tend to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but mostly can’t explain why or how they developed these opinions, according to regional experts. But make no mistake: after all the perfunctory images of Russian influence over US politics in 2016 have played out, a very real if not stark policy divide exists between the Trump and Clinton approach to the US adversary to the east. While average Russians may not know it, their general sense that Trump will be more accommodative with Russia has policy roots.

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump
Image source : Wikimedia Commons

Average Russians have a general sense Trump is their guy

Dmitry Grachyov, a Russian bartender, doesn’t know how he came to form his opinions on US presidential candidate Donald Trump, but he has opinions nonetheless. “Trump, as far as I know — I’ve heard it somewhere, don’t know where — Trump is sympathetic to Putin, to Russia, so that’ll mean warmer relations, which is obviously a plus for everybody,” he told NBC News.

Grachyov’s attitudes are driven in large part based on the state-run media, which in large part has not progressed much from its framing of the US political process in the 1980s, Anna Vassilieva, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, was quoted as saying.

Russian citizens generally don’t understand the “nuances and vicissitudes of [the] American political system,” such as political correctness, Vassilieva said. “Many of Trump’s offensive pronouncements…in Russian translation in particular, sound refreshing and fun for the innocent Russian TV watchers.”

“Trump is credited with being much less politically correct, and more frank, while Hillary is considered to be largely defensive, and hypocritical,” Dmitiri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a member of the Soviet and Russian armed forces from 1972-1993, was quoted as saying.

There is also the issue of Trump’s style and home décor, which is associated with palatial grandeur and gilded luxury also associated with Putin. Trump is somewhat like “those exaggerated New Russians of the 1990s, with gold toilets” and “shiny and rich byzantine like apartments,” Nina Khrushcheva, a great granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and an associate dean at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs was quoted as saying.

Clinton legacy and current rhetoric viewed as hostile towards Russia, Trump viewed as accommodating

While there are symbolic differences, such as perceived toughness and attitude, it is policy accord that many Russians also point to even if they don’t have knowledge of where they acquired their beliefs.

A “great concern” exists that if Clinton were in the white House, she would allow neocon foreign policy to rule the day and “bring back the ‘Russian team’ associated with her husband’s presidency in the 90s,” Vassilieva was quoted as saying. The Clinton Presidency was a “dark period in Russian psyche which is associated with abuse and humiliation.”  Further, Clinton’s tenure as US Secretary of State ended with “escalating confrontation” ruing the day “with both sides eventually denouncing each other as existential threats,” Matthew Rojansky wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Stark policy divide between Trump and Clinton over Russia

Russians generally want the US to leave it alone in Eastern Europe and don’t want their power further diminished. They prefer not to confront the US, but would be willing to do so if their national dignity was threatened.

Even though the average Russian has difficulty enunciating each candidate’s positions, their attitudes do in fact point to substantive policy differences between the likely Clinton and Trump policy approach to the Russian bear.

Both candidates have a “muddled” approach to Russian foreign policy with little meat on the bone.

Clinton, for her part, is likely to be content seeking to both isolate Russia more so than engage with it, depending on the issue, Foreign Policy magazine noted. In her political campaign she claims she would “stand up to Vladimir Putin.” This plays well with US voters of Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic descent and ties into her long-standing support for NATO enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe. Clinton, like George Soros, is a supporter of the Ukraine independence movement and on a path to confrontation on this issue and in Syria.

“If Clinton doubles down on U.S. involvement in proxy conflicts over Syria and Ukraine, as her comments on the campaign trail have suggested, the Russians are almost certain to respond in kind, and direct U.S.-Russia confrontation could spiral quickly out of either side’s control,” Rojansky wrote.

Trump, on the other hand, has questioned the US role in NATO and requested that nations who have not been paying their “fair share” for NATO defense – many Baltic nations – do so. He has advocated for better relations with Putin, calling him a “better leader than Obama.” Trump would likely diminish US support for the current government in Ukraine and reduce support for Syrian-backed rebels fighting the Assad government. Trump would make these concessions in order to gain wider support from Putin in fighting the Islamic state, the Foreign Policy magazine piece predicted.