- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2016

Donald Trump says he wants a better U.S. relationship with Russia, and the state-controlled media in Russia are rooting for him, too.

Although most Russians aren’t paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, the majority of those who are following the campaign favor Mr. Trump, the GOP nominee, with their views shaped by positive portrayals in Russian media. As a result, they view Mr. Trump as a maverick, and they don’t like his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who’s cast as a warmonger.

A poll this month by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion found 34 percent of respondents in Russia expect relations between Moscow and Washington to improve if Mr. Trump wins in November, while only 6 percent said they would improve if Mrs. Clinton is elected president.

The survey found that 53 percent of Russians believe relations would worsen if Mrs. Clinton becomes president; only 12 percent felt that way about a Trump presidency.

Russians’ perceptions of the U.S. presidential candidates are shaped by the state-controlled media, said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, a nongovernmental research and polling organization in Moscow. He said Russians favor Mr. Trump by about 3-to-1 over Mrs. Clinton.

The Russian media, under the ultimate control of President Vladimir Putin, are pushing the expectation that Mr. Trump won’t make an issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“Russian mass media takes every opportunity to stress and emphasize Trump’s sympathy to Putin in Trump’s speeches, and his readiness in the case of electoral victory to accept the Crimea annexation,” Mr. Gudkov said in an email. “At the same time, Clinton’s position is illuminated as an extremely negative one, and in a tendentious manner. Or they don’t say anything about Clinton’s position at all.”

Mr. Gudkov said Mrs. Clinton attracts “Russian liberals and critics of President Putin’s regime,” while Mr. Trump is favored by “Russian nationalists, bureaucracy and Putin’s followers.”

Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, draws a distinction between the attitudes of ordinary Russians and the political elite, saying the latter are divided because some view Mr. Trump as too “erratic and unpredictable.”

In an interview in late July, Mr. Trump suggested he would be willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Republican nominee also drew criticism for saying Mr. Putin is “not going to go into Ukraine” after Russian-backed forces have been fighting for two years in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Trump later tried to clarify his comments, saying, “With all of the Obama tough talk on Russia and the Ukraine, they have already taken Crimea and continue to push.”

Russia said Friday it has deployed an advanced air defense missile system to Crimea, following Mr. Putin’s promise to respond to clashes between Russian forces and what he called Ukrainian “saboteurs” in northern Crimea.

President Obama has called Moscow’s annexation of Crimea illegal. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow, which have had no apparent impact on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Mr. Obama also has rejected calls to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons to fight the separatists.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said Mr. Putin has “paid no price” for his incursion in Ukraine. Obama administration officials say the sanctions have hurt Russia’s economy drastically, and that Mr. Obama has taken steps to beef up NATO on the alliance’s members’ eastern borders with Russia.

The accusations by Democrats of Mr. Trump’s Russia sympathizing go beyond his position on Ukraine. Mr. Trump has called Mr. Putin “a good leader” — also meant as a dig at Mr. Obama.

At a Trump campaign rally last week in Kissimmee, Florida, a protester was removed after shouting at Mr. Trump, “You love Russia. You’re Putin’s b——.”

Mr. Trump said later, “I get a lot of heat over Russia. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?”

Mrs. Clinton already has had one chance to forge a more constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, and it didn’t go well.

As secretary of state under Mr. Obama’s early policy of seeking a “reset” with Russia, she made a famous gaffe in March 2009 by presenting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red button with the Russian word “peregruzka” printed on it. Mrs. Clinton thought it meant “reset” in Russian, but Mr. Lavrov informed her with a smile that the word actually meant “overcharged.”

The relationship went downhill from there, with Mr. Putin accusing Mrs. Clinton of “giving a signal” to Russian protesters accusing the government of rigged elections in 2011.

“They heard this signal and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, began their active work,” Mr. Putin said at the time, referring to protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg that led to hundreds of arrests.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in a New York Times op-ed last week that Russia’s state-controlled media “portrayed Russian protesters as traitors, puppets of the United States, who took money and orders from Washington.”

Kremlin TV also has blamed Mrs. Clinton for the overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, a longtime ally of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin’s feelings for Mrs. Clinton apparently have not improved since 2011. During a call-in show in April, a Russian asked Mr. Putin, “Who is worse for Russia: Clinton or Trump?”

After giving a lengthy criticism of U.S. foreign policy and American “imperial ambitions,” Mr. Putin cited a Russian proverb to describe Mrs. Clinton’s desire to follow her husband as president.

“As we say, husband and wife are the same Satan,” Mr. Putin said, laughing.

Mr. Gudkov said Russians are subjected to “an extremely negative tone of the information about the U.S. in Russian mass media, and aggressive anti-American demagoguery.”

“As a result of that, the figure of Trump presented mainly on the Russian TV federal channels is disposed in a somewhat more positive, amiable and benevolent manner than the figure of Clinton,” he said.

He said the coverage in the Russian media highlights Mr. Trump’s “sharply critical” rhetoric of Mr. Obama’s policies and, by extension, Mrs. Clinton’s proposals.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Senate’s International Affairs Committee, told the government news agency TASS that having the Republican presidential nominee call for improving relations with Russia means that “similar sentiment is becoming more and more popular in the U.S., and it can bring political points.”

But he added, “Only time will tell whether Trump is ready or, which is no less important, capable of implementing this. It is definitely too early to celebrate.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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