A cartoon featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin swimming the butterfly with a huge plume of smoke rising from him became an instant hit on Twitter last month.
The smoke pillar was the shape of the exhaust belched by an aging, diesel-fueled Russian aircraft carrier that had just sailed through the English Channel en route to Syria, drawing jokes on social media last month.
The cartoon became a symbol of Mr. Putin’s self-serving propaganda effort, which exaggerates Russia’s military prowess and pursuits as Russia strives to reclaim its great-power status.
In that effort, Mr. Putin has an effective U.S. supporter — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Mr. Putin has successfully played the Trump card, distracting the Russian public from budget cuts necessitated by low oil prices and the economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia by the West in the wake of the Crimea annexation and then were extended in reaction to Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Trump’s infamous campaign pronouncements have been played on Russian prime-time television and featured in anti-American commentaries by Mr. Putin’s most ardent sycophants time and time again.
The Republican nominee’s speech excerpts trashing the U.S. election process, American media, and NATO were most popular in Russia. So were those lauding Mr. Putin as an effective leader who has taken front stage in world affairs, particularly in Syria.
Mr. Putin needs Mr. Trump to win the election, because with an isolationist in the White House, the Russian empire-builder would have a better chance to succeed not only in bringing Ukraine back to heel but possibly in splitting up NATO and then reusing his signature “hybrid war” scenario in Eastern and Central Europe.
Russian print media have been running front-page articles headlined “The West Can’t Afford to Stumble into Military Conflict between U.S., Russia, China,” “Sleepwalking Into a War with Russia,” “Rigged U.S. Presidential Election,” and “China & U.S. Elections: Trump May Start a Trade War, but Clinton Could Begin World War III.”
The last headline mirrors Mr. Trump’s allegation that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s plan for Syria would lead to a clash with nuclear-armed Russia, and thus to World War III.
As for Russian TV commentators, some of them were not above standing in front of an image of a nuclear explosion while telling their viewers that “Russia is capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash,” with the words “radioactive ash” in an accompanying graphic.
According to Russian public opinion polls, more than half of Russians consider a nuclear war between Russia and the United States possible, with most blaming the United States for it. The most troubling part is that unlike in Soviet times, Russians supposedly don’t tend to view such a war as a doomsday scenario but as a manageable conflict.
Mr. Putin’s propaganda machine gleefully delivers the scary “news” to the U.S. reader, most effectively via social networks such as Twitter, with tweets such as the Putin breaststroke cartoon greatly outnumbered.
His fear-mongering tactics, however, would have a better chance to help Mr. Trump if Americans cared about foreign policy at least half as much as they do about the economy and domestic issues.
Fortunately, they do not.
Chances are Mr. Putin will not see his chum Donald Trump elected — despite all the Russian support, not least the Democratic National Committee hack, as well as the propaganda war against Mrs. Clinton, whom he views as hawkish toward Russia.
But even then, Mr. Putin stands to benefit from the damage done to the prestige of the United States by Mr. Trump and his Russian media sidekicks internationally, most significantly in Russia, and in the former Soviet countries and satellite states that Russia is so keen to reacquire.
Asked on Twitter, “who is the biggest winner in this election so far,” Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, replied: “Putin. This undermines our reputation & image around the world.”
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.
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