Donald Trump got his most prominent endorsement yet Thursday–albeit not from a source anywhere near American mainstream opinion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin positively ladled out the praise on the GOP front-runner Donald Trump at his annual set-piece press conference, calling him “an exceptionally bright personality,” and “talented, without any doubt.”
“It’s not our job to judge his merits, that’s for the voters of the U.S.A.,” the Kremlin leader added with his customary grace, “but he’s absolutely the leader of the presidential race.”
The endorsement could be a mixed blessing, at best, for Trump. At face value, it validates his boast that he will stand up to Putin and other foreign leaders. On the other, in the context of a U.S.-Russian relationship that is more often than not confrontational, it’s not hard to see how Putin wouldn’t prefer dealing with the diplomatically erratic and inexperienced Trump than with his most likely rival, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And in any case, Putin’s judgment calls aren’t always, how shall we say it? mainstream. Earlier in the same press conference, he repeated his call for disgraced FIFA boss Sepp Blatter to be given the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Russian president had very different words for more serious foes Thursday, accusing Turkey’s leadership of “licking the Americans in a particular place,” when it ordered its air force to shoot down a Russian bomber en route to attack rebels in Syria last month. He added scornfully that the Turks had gotten little from the U.S. and its NATO allies in response.
The incident was the first in which a NATO country had shot down one of Moscow’s airplanes since the alliance was founded, reviving old rivalries and causing a furious row that has hampered the quest for a common strategy to defeat the so-called Islamic State.
Putin’s descent into thinly-veiled vulgarity, which elicited a big laugh from the nearly 1,400 (mostly Russian) journalists present, is an indication of how far relations with Erdogan have been strained by the shooting down. The Kremlin boss routinely does it when it comes to talking about those he despises most (but never about the U.S.). Putin once threatened to cut the penis off a French reporter who pressed him about rights abuses by his troops in the rebel region of Chechnya, and promised to bomb the same rebels ‘in the outhouse’ if that was what it took to destroy them.
Russia’s response to the Turkish incident has been swift and harsh: it has imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Turkish imports, notably on fruit and vegetables, scrapped the two countries’ bilateral deal on visa-free travel and effectively stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey. In all, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimates the measures could cost the Turkish economy around $9 billion next year, or up to 0.7% of gross domestic product.
In addition to the economic measures, Putin has deployed Russia’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to Syria, ending what little hope NATO had of imposing a no-fly zone on the forces of President Bashar-al-Assad.
“Did they think we’d run away? We’re not that type of people,” Putin said.
Putin said Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern, secular Turkish state, would be “spinning in his grave” at the ‘creeping Islamization’ of the country under Erdogan. And he drew a menacing parallel between the U.S.’s support for Turkey and its support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, which morphed into the Taliban.
“They may think ‘well, they’re Islamists, but they’re Our Islamists’,” Putin said, warning that, last time, “nothing good came of that.”
But there were also more conciliatory moments. Putin suggested he wouldn’t want to keep a permanent military presence in Syria when the current civil war ends, hinting that the financial cost of running a permanent base could be too high for comfort against the background of Russia’s economic problems.