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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) meets with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo on March 19, 2010. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The Poor State of the Putin-Clinton Relationship

Hannah Thoburn

It is no secret that the Kremlin is not terribly enthused about the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Russia’s alleged involvement in the computer hacks of the Democratic National Committee made that much clear.

A quick look around Russian news sites – most of which are owned and controlled by the Kremlin and its friends – is illustrative of the Kremlin’s opprobrium towards her. At tabloid-esque LifeNews and Komosmolskaya Pravda, conspiratorial speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health is plumped with headlines like, “Thrombosis, heart attack, Alzheimers. What threatens Hillary Clinton?” Conspiracy theories thoroughly debunked in the United States have new life in Russia with articles like “Five Mysterious Deaths of Hillary Clinton’s Opponents”.

But why the desire to prevent a Clinton presidency?

For the Kremlin, Hillary Clinton is already a known commodity. They know how she works, are familiar with her advisors and ideas, and believe them to be anti-Russian. Furthermore, a Hillary Clinton presidency would not bring the same kind of opportunity for a new “reset” that a Donald Trump presidency would. The original “reset” policy was implemented by her State Department, and many in her orbit are rather uninclined to try the same thing again.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, Clinton’s tenure in the State Department was decidedly bad for Russia. They blamed her for fomenting the protest movement that emerged after Vladimir Putin announced his return to the Russian presidency, and his United Russia party blatantly falsified December 2011’s parliamentary election results. That Michael McFaul, a favorite Russian punching bag, the architect of the Reset Policy, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2012-2014) at the time of the protests, and currently one of the leads on the Clinton campaign’s Russia and Europe team, remains close to Clinton is also likely of worry to the Kremlin.

Her State Department’s involvement in the situations in Egypt and Libya – both countries where leaders have been deposed – has further convinced the Kremlin that she envisions the same fate for Mr. Putin.

McFaul recently told NBC News that “In addition to the policy disagreements that they have, I think Putin himself sees some of Clinton’s remarks as a personal attack against him and the way he governs his country and how he conducts his foreign policy.”

She has been rather vocal in her statements about and against President Putin, comparing him to Hitler and actively asserting that the Kremlin wants to “stymie, to confront, to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.” She has also been clear that she considers Putin to be an obstacle to further agreements between the U.S. and Russia, saying in a debate late last year that the U.S. “got a lot of business done with the Russians when [Dmitriy] Medvedev was the president, and not Putin.” Neither has Putin been kind, saying condescendingly, “It’s better not to argue with women,”… and that “Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.”

The poor state of the Putin-Clinton relationship does not likely augur well for the kind of personalized leader-to-leader contacts that Putin prefers to utilize. But they have worked together before and are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and may have even developed a kind of grudging respect for one another. Clinton is likewise well-educated in the ways that Putin conducts his diplomatic and military efforts.

Her campaign website boasts that “Hillary has gone toe-to-toe with Putin before, and she’ll do it again. She’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with our European allies and push back on and deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond, and increase the costs to Putin for his actions.”

There are signals that a Clinton presidency would not be as content as is the Obama administration with Russian military activities in Syria. When it was still a feasible option, she had advocated for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in Syria, a move that would have disturbed Kremlin plans to bomb areas occupied by any and all anti-government forces. Yet, she has also called for the U.S. and Russia to work together on solving the governance and humanitarian crisis in that country.

In Europe, she seems likely to take a somewhat tougher stance on Russia than has President Obama. In 2015, she called for increased military and financial aid to Ukraine, which is fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in its east. While Obama has declined to give the Ukrainians lethal or non-lethal weaponry, Clinton seems to leave that door open, declaring, “I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the cost on Russia and, in particular, on Putin.”

No wonder then that the Kremlin sees Donald Trump as the better alternative for Russia. Trump has already proven himself to be an ego that is easily manipulated, has been open to the idea of recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and is openly laudatory of Putin’s rule. The Kremlin prefers the uncertainty of a Trump presidency to a Clinton leadership that has been vocal about its desire to hold them to account for their various invasions and human rights violations. It doesn’t look like they’re going to get it.

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