With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia. 

Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in the Second Presidential Debate.

Trump keeps his campaign afloat, but his performance won’t affect the final result.

The expectation was that last night’s Second Presidential Debate would be dominated by the fallout from the derogatory comments made by Trump during an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005. Early on in the debate, this prediction rang true. Previously, Trump had addressed his recorded comments with a short video, which didn’t include an actual apology but attempted to explain away his behaviour. During the debate, he addressed the scandal in a similarly brief fashion.

He disputed the view espoused by Joe Biden that the recording amounted to “sexual assault”, instead dismissing it as “locker room talk” and following this up with, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” He then quickly pivoted to a monologue about his plans to destroy ISIS, and although this plan was relatively incomprehensible, it did prove somewhat successful in drawing the debate away from the subject of the tapes.

But when Clinton, in her strongest passage of the debate, offered a strong rebuke of Trump’s “fitness to serve”, Trump responded by bringing up historic allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton, which followed a pre-debate press conference that he held with several women who allege to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton. Although this was effective in distracting from the problems with his own campaign, it was in no way the best way to bring undecided voters to his side. Prior to the debate, polling suggested that a large majority of voters felt that it would be inappropriate for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s alleged misconduct. So although Trump may have reassured his base that he is someone who will stand up to the Clintons, what he won’t have done is persuaded any undecided voters to come aboard. Ultimately, the Trump base is in no way large enough to win an election. No candidate can expect to win without appealing to undecided centre-ground voters, and in bringing up Bill Clinton, Trump did precisely the opposite.

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Bill and Chelsea Clinton look on nervously. 

 

But one thing Trump did well throughout the debate, and which will have gone a long way towards keeping his campaign afloat for the time being, was that he stayed on-message throughout. With Trump, there is always the danger that he goes off on a complete tangent and brings up things completely irrelevant to his campaign, which is something we certainly saw during the first debate. However, this time Trump did well to keep to his long-term script of pitching himself as the only person who can make progress in Washington, as well as consistently disavowing the moderators (and in extension the whole mainstream media) for what he perceived as their biased coverage of him. He regularly interjected whilst Clinton was answering with something along the lines of, “It’s just words, folks,” looking to advance his analysis that throughout her career Clinton has been all words and no action. In addition, when moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper cut him off for going over his two minute limit, he consistently complained that Clinton didn’t get the same treatment (even though she did), with Trump describing the debate as, “one on three”. Again this is a tactic that will further cement Trump’s approval amongst his base of supporters, many of whom believe that the mainstream media is lying to them. But it is unlikely to bring any new supporters into the Trump tent.

Campaign 2016 Debate
Trump consistently interrupted Clinton’s answers with comments like, “It’s just words folks.”

 

Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the debate came when during an exchange about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump said that if he wins, he is “going to instruct my Attorney General to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” When Clinton then suggested that given Trump’s loose grasp of the facts it was a good thing that he wasn’t in charge of law and order, Trump hit back with “Because you’d be in jail!” I thought that I’d heard it all in this election, but the threat of jailing the loser is certainly a new one. Making a threat like this is a pretty dangerous game to be playing. Despite the FBI saying that Clinton’s conduct over her emails was “extremely careless”, they concluded that she hadn’t acted illegally. Therefore, Trump is seemingly suggesting that he would imprison Clinton because of her political viewpoint, a tactic used by dictators around the world. Although it may have been meant in a tongue in cheek way, Trump should be disavowing this comment immediately, although don’t count on that happening anytime soon.


Trump did provide us with the best line thus far of any of this election’s debates. In a discussion about a leaked email from Hillary Clinton in which she suggested that politicians needed to have both a public and a private position on certain issues, Clinton gave a unconvincing response that she was referring to the example of Abraham Lincoln using different techniques to get lawmakers to agree with him. Trump responded with: “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late great, Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe.” This was easily Trump’s best line of the debate, reflected by the subsequent cheers from some members of the audience.


The second half of the debate was relatively civilised in comparison.

As always Trump answered questions without any reference to his prospective policies, which in any case seem to change from day to day.

When asked about how he would improve Obamacare, Trump responded by saying that he would repeal it and institute “the finest health care plan there is,” in its place. Naturally, there was no indication of what this plan might entail.

On every other subject Trump came up with more of the same. There was nothing in way of policy at all. Trump’s pitch rested on basically saying that he will make things better, but not telling anyone how he plans to do this; much like his oft-repeated (and oft-mocked) ‘secret plan’ for fighting ISIS.

But realistically, Trump didn’t need to put forward any substantial policy. If putting forward substantial policy was a requirement in this presidential election, then Trump would not have got this far.

The fact of the matter is that all Trump needed to do last night was come out and keep his cool, and show that his campaign wasn’t imploding in the way that the week’s events suggested it might be. He achieved this. He debated with much more confidence than in the first debate, and Clinton seemed less sure of herself, missing multiple opportunities to castigate Trump for his lack of policy knowledge.

Immediately prior to this debate, for Trump’s campaign to not completely implode whilst on stage, would have been considered a success.

With this in mind, Trump arguably won this debate. Although Clinton answered the questions better, actually put forward real policies, and showed far better temperament; the standard that Trump needed to hit was much lower. Given the events of the past few days, Trump actually turning up for the debate was a victory in itself. Unlike in the first debate, he wasn’t as eager to take the bait offered by Clinton, and Clinton herself was strangely reluctant to go after him when he made mistakes.

On this basis, it can objectively be said that Trump won the debate. Clinton had the chance to end the election then and there on the stage at Washington University, St Louis; but she blew it. Trump needed to win to survive, and there can be little doubt that he managed this. For Clinton, this debate was far less essential. Despite Trump’s narrow win here, she surely retains the momentum, and with the prospect of further tapes surfacing containing worse comments, there are sure to be many further opportunities for Clinton to trash Trump.

But, for now, the race continues. Will this debate have had any effect on the ultimate result of this election? No, I don’t think so. Clinton remains in pole position to take the White House. But Donald Trump lives to fight another day.

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