Could Putin actually prefer Sanders over Trump?

Written by Nick Licata


Sanders presents a more stable and predictable adversary but with a foreign policy similar to Trump’s.


Bernie Sanders at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., June 2019
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

An aide to Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting director of national intelligence, briefed the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13 that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Donald Trump re-elected. Separately, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials have told Sen. Bernie Sanders that Russia is attempting to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest, according to people familiar with the matter.

A number of Democratic Party leaders believe that Sanders may be promoted by the Russians because he is seen as the weakest candidate that Trump could face, and hence could help assure his reelection. That rationale runs counter to polls which show Sanders beating Trump in some of the most important states. Axios reports that a Quinnipiac Poll last week (Feb 16th to 23rd) showed Sanders beating Trump in Michigan and Pennsylvania. A CBS News/YouGov poll had Sanders beating Trump nationally.

There is also a common belief that the Russians support Sanders because they believe it would sow more divisions within the Democratic party than supporting any other candidate. Concerns about such divisions are coming mostly from party leadership and as of now, not reflective of any rumblings from the general membership. However, there are two other reasons that could explain why the Russians could support Sanders.

First, between dealing with a mercurial, spontaneous decision-making adversary or one that is methodical and stable, Sanders would appear to be the safer bet in not pursuing aggressive military moves. Although he would not be as deferential to President Vladimir V. Putin as Trump, he conceivably could be a more reliable steady negotiator.

But there is a more important reason for the Russians to promote Sanders above the other Democrats running for president. And, it has nothing with him being a democratic socialist. It has to do with his approach to a foreign policy being more similar to Trump’s than any other Democrat.

Sander’s past foreign policy positions parallel those of Trump’s. Both were opposed to the US invading Iraq, although Trump’s claim is suspect given that two months before the war, in a Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto, Trump expressed neither support nor opposition to the concept of invading Iraq. Meanwhile, Sanders lead the opposition to the war in Congress.

They both have pushed for pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. Sanders in an op-ed in Foreign Affairs wrote: “Withdrawing from Afghanistan is something we must do,”. Trump ran as the only candidate in 2016, of both Republicans and Democrats, who would remove our troops from that country but in his second year in office, he increased US military presence there. Now, facing reelection, he has resurrected his original promise to pull them out. Is he concerned that if Sanders is his opponent, Sanders will hammer Trump, like he did Hillary in committing our troops overseas fighting an “endless war”? That attack will cut deeper into Trump’s base than all the impeachment coverage that the Democrats generated.

Trump in an address to military members in 2017 complained that Americans were “weary of war without victory” and with a “foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives,” on trying to rebuild countries. Because Sanders is not a liberal interventionist, he is the strongest Democratic candidate that can win a fight with Trump on the need to rebuild our nation first before pursuing military ventures. And, he can accuse Trump of having failed in his promise to do just that.

Sanders, like Trump, has argued that the US has wasted billions in taxpayer dollars, allowing competitors such as Russia and China to exploit the “forever wars” and expand their political influence. This approach reflects Trump’s “America First” policy that would end US involvement in pointless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere and instead invest that money in rebuilding America’s economy. Sanders could pull off diplomacy oriented “America First” approach without Trump-like blustering tweets that have generated far more media coverage than foreign policy gains.

Russell Berman of The Atlantic aptly pointed out that “The U.S. has now elected two presidents in a row who were, or claimed to be, against the war. Sanders is hoping voters decide to pick a third.” It worked for Barak Obama, distinguishing himself from Hilary Clinton by his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq from its outset. It worked again for Trump who claimed to be against the war. Now Sanders is in a position to do it again.

It is insightful to note that 11 percent of Sander’s supporters in 2016, said they voted for Trump. Since it is likely that many of these folks were opposed to foreign military incursions, could there be a similar percentage of current Trump supporters moving over to Sanders if he is seen as being able to pull us out of “endless wars”?

Sanders is interested in avoiding military conflicts, but also in reshaping the military budget. He likely would challenge Trump’s massive expansion of our nuclear weapons program. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Trump’s next biannual expenditure in this area would increase by $92 billion over the previous estimate of $400 made in 2017, which was already 15 percent higher than the previous 2015 estimate.

While much of this money purchases additional tactical nuclear weapons, in reality, they have been practically useless in achieving political objectives in military conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan. That funding could be diverted to building up our failing national infrastructure of roads and drainage lines, and pursue projects to build high-speed rail, and G5 network to catch up with other nations. These projects would provide jobs that voters of both parties would like to see. Let Trump defend spending billions on nuclear weapons while the country falls apart. Who is the strongest candidate willing and able to challenge Trump’s military budget as more lard than meat?

The Russians may still prefer Trump, but if there is a Democratic President, they may see Sanders as someone they can work within reaching agreements that Trump has been unable to achieve, like securing a lasting Iranian agreement.

More importantly, they need someone to revive their nuclear arms treaty with the US, which President Reagan created but President Trump ditched. Putin does not want to be dragged into another nuclear arms race. It didn’t go well for the Soviet Union; it busted their economy. It will not go well for Putin’s government either. He needs to negotiate with a national leader whose foreign policy is not erratic and tied too closely to that leader’s whims.

Could Putin be willing to see Trump dumped?

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