Putin praises Trump. An endorsement?

Russian President Vladimir Putin had nice things to say about Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has been jocular about Mr. Putin. What's this all about?

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual end of year news conference Thursday in Moscow Thursday, where he complimented Donald Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump and seconded Mr. Trump’s calls for better relations between their countries.

“[Trump] is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that,” said Mr. Putin at his annual year-ending news conference. “He is an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today.”

The billionaire real estate magnate is “an outstanding and talented personality,” Putin added.

On the stump, Trump often says that if elected he will improve US relations with Russian and its autocratic leader. “I would talk to him, I would get along with him,” he said during a GOP debate last September.

During his Friday news conference, Putin said he approves of this sentiment.

“He says that wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia,” Putin said of Trump. “How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it.”

Putin has said he would get along with whomever is elected to be the next US leader, so it is possible to read too much into a few sentences from an annual, wide-ranging Kremlin appearance.

Still, the apparent pat on the back from Moscow shows how much the world has changed in recent decades and the unusual dynamic of the current Republican race.

Used to be that a Kremlin endorsement would doom a presidential candidate, and particularly one from the GOP. It was President Ronald Reagan, after all, who stood in front of the Berlin Wall and famously challenged the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

But today both Putin and Trump have reasons to engage in a sort of personal political détente.

Putin may see The Donald as someone who would give him much less trouble about his muscular – critics would say reckless, doomed, and counterproductive – military engagement in the Syrian civil war. Almost all the current Republican candidates, in fact, have talked of more extensive US bombing efforts against the Islamic State. Russia is doing that kind of thing now.

Both men speak alarmingly about perceived external threats to their nation. (The US, in Putin’s view; Muslims, in Trump’s.) Both use punchy, tough language. Both dominate national television news, albeit through different methods.

“Both men are credited with being spontaneous, unpredictable and counter-intuitive, qualities that make it difficult for opponents to outmaneuver them,” writes columnist Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times in a comparison of the two.

Trump, for his part, may see in Putin someone who governs with an authority he (Trump) can only aspire to. 

No bowing to an opposition-controlled legislature. No real problems from a free and independent mainstream media. Not many checks on his ability to act boldly and fast, at home or overseas. Putin can even annex parts of other countries, as when he managed to separate Crimea from Ukraine.

Trump has even called Putin and himself “stablemates”, since they both appeared in the same episode of “60 Minutes” this fall, albeit in different segments filmed in different countries.

As to US reaction, Elizabeth Bruenig, a New Republic staff writer, asks the key question – what will his supporters think?

“Dare we even speculate as to what Putin’s Trump endorsement will do to the polls,” she tweeted on Thursday.

Based on past experience we’ll hazard this guess: it will make them support Trump even more.

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