Donald Trump has spent the last several months leading the polls in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee in the 2016 election. But the loudmouthed billionaire and former reality television star isn’t just popular with the GOP. His appeal extends across oceans, making him, arguably, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite GOP contender.
Nearly all Russian media these days is controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin, which means that in general, if something appears in any of the numerous government-run media outlets in Russia, it has the tacit approval of Putin’s administration.
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And Trump has been appearing in Russian media a whole lot recently, particularly after his comments over the past week about Russia’s intervention in the messy civil war in Syria.
Most Western governments have reacted coldly to Russia’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Putin has characterized the decision to send warplanes, helicopters, and other heavy weaponry to the embattled country as an effort to battle ISIS, and has called on other countries to join Russia in fighting the terror group that controls large parts of both Syria and Iraq.
However, early Russian airstrikes hit areas with little or no ISIS presence, instead focusing on areas held by rebel groups fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
This fed into the concern, among many in the West, that Putin’s goal in Syria has little to do with ISIS, and everything to do with propping up the Assad government, which is one of the Kremlin’s few allies in the region, and which controls one of only two Russian military bases outside the former Soviet Union – the naval station at Tartus. (The other is the combined air/naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.)
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Many analysts see the Russian intervention in Syria as something more than the Kremlin protecting its military assets in the region. Putin, the argument goes, is allergic to popular uprisings. In particular, he especially dislikes rebellions backed by Western governments (read: Washington) that disagree with the basic proposition of his government: Elected leaders should be allowed to do as they please with their people within their countries’ own borders.
That’s a proposition that presidential administrations of both parties have completely rejected--at least in public statements. Most recently, President Obama appeared before the United Nations General Assembly last week and reiterated his call to remove Assad from power for massive human rights violations.
(Many would argue that the Obama administration has failed to be true to these principles, citing, for example, Saudi Arabia’s torture of its own citizens.) Human rights have also been the driving principle behind not just the current U.S. bombing of ISIS in Syria, but earlier interventions in Libya and Iraq.
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However, in an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, Trump appeared to take a Putinesque view of the question.
“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it's a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it's a mess — it's [Syria] going to be same thing," Trump said.
It’s not known whether any members of the Kremlin-run Russian news media physically injured themselves trying to rush Trump’s comments into print, but they were clearly in a hurry. Trump’s suggestion that murderous dictators Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad might best have been left in power is so at odds with current U.S. policy, and so in line with Putin’s worldview, that getting his comments into the public realm was plainly a high priority.
State-run Sputnik News (see above) quickly made Trump’s comments its main story.
Trump went on to suggest that refugees from the Syrian conflict might turn out to be from ISIS, and might end up taking over the U.S. government in a coup.
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“This could be one of the great military coups of all time if they send them to our country -- young, strong people and they turn out to be ISIS," he said on Fox News over the weekend. “Now, probably that won't happen, but some of them definitely in my opinion will be ISIS.”
Trump likely doesn’t know it, but his (absurd) idea that ISIS could mount a coup against the U.S. government from within the country is once again a gift to Putin. The Russian leader has been justifying his decision to send Russian forces to Syria on the basis that it protects Russian citizens from future terrorist attacks and the Russian government from destabilization.
The fact that the candidate leading the polls for the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties in the U.S. apparently believes the same thing makes defending that position a whole lot easier than it would otherwise be.