Could Putin prove to be Trump's fatal attraction?


A Russian fridge magnet featuring Vladimir Putin on a $100 bill

There was a time when to work out what was happening in Moscow you needed to read between the lines in Pravda, or look at the line-up of Soviet officials at a Red Square parade and study who was standing next to whom.

The art of Kremlinology has moved on since then. And I’m proud to say I’ve come up with my own 21st Century method for keeping up to date with the current thinking in the corridors of Russian power: it involves walking to the train station opposite the BBC Moscow office, going up to the souvenir stand and looking at the fridge magnets on sale.

You can tell a lot from Russian fridge magnets. This week’s selection includes several different “Vladimir Putin in military camouflage” magnets, complete with patriotic slogans, like: “Together we are a force to be reckoned with!” and “We will always look out for our guys!”

Kremlin policy in a nutshell.

One fridge magnet in particular caught my eye. It looks just like a $100 bill but, in place of the American founding father Benjamin Franklin, there is a portrait of Vladimir Putin.

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Vladimir Putin features on a range of Russian fridge magnets

I know. It’s only a fridge magnet. But it encapsulates the whole Putin-Trump/Russia-America saga. After six months of Donald Trump in the White House, Russians are beginning to feel that their country enjoys considerable influence over America.

And who could blame them for thinking that? Particularly in light of allegations of the Kremlin hacking a US election and putting a Russian puppet in the White House, and with all the rumours of Russian lawyers, Russian lobbyists and Russian oligarchs conspiring with the Trump team and the Trump family.

It will be up to official investigations to establish whether there was, indeed, collusion. But even the suggestion that there may have been has got the whole world talking about the power of Putin’s Russia and the weakness of Trump’s America.

There are times when Vladimir Putin seems to be basking in the infamy of running a cyber superpower.

There is just one problem for President Putin. It’s the problem of all fridge magnets, really. They look so pretty when you buy them in the shop. But they don’t stick to every fridge.

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Many Russians welcomed Donald Trump’s presidential victory

When it began, Donald Trump’s presidency looked very pretty to Moscow. The Russians expected that America’s new leader would herald a new era in US-Russian cooperation.

At the time, a news anchor on Russian State TV described Trump as “an Alpha male… a real man.” The day after America’s presidential election, one Russian state official told me that she had celebrated Trump’s victory with a cigar and a bottle of champagne.

But, after six months of President Trump, US sanctions against Russia remain in place.

The two Russian diplomatic compounds, closed by President Obama last December, remain shut. And the idea of a “Grand Deal” with America, much hoped for here at the start of the Trump presidency, has disappeared from the pages of the Russian dailies.

Moscow is not blaming Donald Trump directly for this. One Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, explained recently that, in the current atmosphere, “Trump doesn’t have the slightest possibility to improve Russian-US relations, since any step, any glance even in the direction of Russia is met with suspicion back home and even viewed as treason.”

A few days ago I was chatting to a Russian senator. He complained that the intense pressure President Trump was facing over the Russia question was complicating US-Russian diplomacy.

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Behind the smiles, what concrete effects will come from the Trump/Putin political relationship?

“Trump is like a prisoner,” he told me, “And how can you talk to a prisoner?”

But Russia and America are talking. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have now met, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. And, although progress is slower than Moscow would like, there is cautious talk of cooperation: in Syria, for example, and in the area of cyber security.

Mr Trump continues to argue there is nothing wrong in seeking a closer relationship with Russia. He insists it is in America’s interest to do so.

And, while America’s president and America’s Western allies often appear poles apart on a variety of issues, Donald Trump seems drawn like a magnet to Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, he has openly praised the Kremlin leader. Yet Russia is casting a shadow over the US administration. For Donald Trump, could this prove to be a fatal attraction?



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