Putin Is Good at Picking Losers

From Silvio Berlusconi of Italy to Trump, Vladimir has a reputation of befriending authoritarian bullies.

Michael Crowley has an interesting piece today about the similarities between Vladimir Putin’s courtship of Trump to his wooing of Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. According to this BBC report from June, the similarities between these two proteges are striking.

Few Italians have wielded more influence and attracted more notoriety than Silvio Berlusconi, four-time prime minister and billionaire businessman.

For years he successfully brushed off sex scandals and allegations of corruption but it was the effects of Italy’s burgeoning eurozone debt crisis in 2011 that finally spelt an end to his time at the top table of politics.

The charismatic showman was replaced by a technocrat and his centre-right party split.

Worse was to come for a man whom many Italians had come to see as untouchable.

He was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and ejected from the Italian Senate. Because of his age, a four-year jail term became a year of community service at a care home near Milan. Another conviction in 2015 and his political career was finally over.

Of course, the glaring difference is that Berlusconi did serve as Prime Minister of Italy. But he was obviously a corrupt womanizing billionaire who’s party didn’t survive his downfall.

Crowley explores Putin’s attraction to men like this:

Putin’s friendship with the Italian may simply demonstrate that the Russian leader has a natural chemistry with a rich, politically incorrect businessman.

To some, however, it hints at something more.

“The parallels with Trump are a little too disturbing,” says a U.S. government analyst who closely tracked Russia’s relationship with Europe when Berlusconi was in office. “Putin is very strategic. He would focus on people’s vulnerabilities — whether their vanity or greed or financial needs.”

What does Putin want in return?

In recent years Putin has befriended several major Western European politicians, including former leaders of France and Germany, who openly challenge U.S. and European policies toward Russia, including NATO’s buildup in Eastern Europe and economic sanctions punishing Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

What stands out to me is something Crowley didn’t mention: notice that those Western European politicians are all “former leaders.” And Donald Trump’s candidacy is going down in flames – no matter how much propaganda Russia tries to interject (or perhaps, in part, because of it).

It’s telling that the “natural chemistry” Putin has with rich politically incorrect authoritarian bullies seems to lead him to develop bromances with losers.

Back when Russia invaded Ukraine, this was a common refrain we heard from the Obama administration:

“What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President Putin to address problems, deploying military forces rather than negotiating,” says a senior administration official, speaking on background. “But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st-century world, an interdependent world.”

It is obvious that Putin’s affection for “deploying military forces rather than negotiating” isn’t the only way he is stuck in a 19th and 20th century world.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.