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According to The Guardian, President Trump was subject to criticism over his decision to congratulate President Putin on winning Russian elections in 2018:

Donald Trump defended himself against criticism over his congratulatory phone call to Vladimir Putin following the Russian president’s recent re-election, insisting on Wednesday afternoon it was in US interests to maintain a positive rapport with Moscow.

It is my understanding that congratulating a President for winning an elections is typically an automatic diplomatic gesture that is performed throughout the world and it happened before even in US–Russia relations (source):

  • "former president Barack Obama also wished Putin well after the Russian election on March 4, 2012"
  • "Former president George W. Bush also called Dmitry Medvedev in 2008"

Another example is a Romanian President who made a similar gesture, and Romania–Russia relations are not exactly full of unicorns and rainbows (also this source).

Question: Why was President Trump so heavily criticized for congratulating President Putin on winning the Russian election?

  • 2
    Your two examples do not have a reference. It is also lacking the words, congratulations on the election win. – Joe Mar 27 '18 at 17:14
  • 4
    Criticised by whom? The Guardian used 'weasel words' here to say 'there was criticism' but the extract you give us doesn't tell us who criticised him, or what they said. So we can only speculate on why hypothetical people might hypothetically has criticised him. – JeffUK Mar 29 '18 at 8:31
  • @JeffUK - you only have to click on the first related story theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/20/… to see John McCain at least was amongst those expressing criticism. – Martin Smith Apr 1 '18 at 11:00
47

Leaders of democracies are expected to advocate Human Rights and democratic processes, at least by words. This doesn't mean all diplomatic connections need to be broken with autocrats, but at least to refrain from supporting repression or clear infringements of democratic principles. One of the most important of those principles are fair elections.

Because there are huge concerns about the (lack of) political rights of Russian citizens, the POTUS wasn't expected to congratule Vladimir Putin of his re-election. Those concerns include:

  • Repression of opposing political parties and individual protesters,

  • Political control of press and medias,

  • General restrictions on the rights of minorities,

  • the Russian foreign policy, which is considered as aggressive, in Ukraine, in Syria, with interference in the 2016 US election, with the recent poisoning of Mr Skripal in London, and on other occasions, policies which have already motivated condemnations and sanctions by western powers, including the US,

  • At least one major opponent (Navalny) forbidden to run for Presidency by a Court decision that seems to be motivated by political purposes,

  • Unequal access to the media for the candidates,

  • Lack of independent foreign observers during the elections,

  • Documented allegations and evidence of frauds during the election itself (whose scale is hard to evaluate) and of pressure on the voters.

All these reasons explain why the March 2018 election is not considered (by many) as a fair democratic election but rather as a communication tool of Putin. As a consequence, most western leaders have acknowledged the proclaimed result without sending any congratulations to Putin.

Note that "congratulating" means not only acceptance but also approval of said election. You don't congratulate anyone for something you consider unfair. By congratulating the Russian president, Trump discredits the voices that raise to complain about the unfair vote, and makes it much more difficult to support Russian activists who are fighting for a real Russian democracy.

Comparing with 2008 and 2012, one should stress that congratulations are much more committing than "well-being wishes" or just a "phone call". By the way, already in 2004, French president Jacques Chirac was strongly criticized for congratulating Putin on his first reelection, for similar reasons (replace Crimea by Chechenya).

Per @patstew, European Commission's president Jean-Claude Juncker was also criticized for sending congratulations to Putin in this (2018) election.

Finally, it seems Trump's congratulations to Putin went against the recommendations of his own staff, which can fuel the debates about his impulsiveness or about how well the White House administration is functioning.

  • 2
    Another relevant example is Jean Claude Junker who was also criticised for sending congratulations to Putin in this election. – patstew Mar 27 '18 at 13:24
  • 13
    "are supposed to advocate Human Rights and democratic processes" - is that in an official rule book somewhere? EU seems to be very supportive of violators of both when it suits them ideologically. – user4012 Mar 27 '18 at 16:25
  • 6
    @user4012 do you see any difference about that with the US or any other country in fact? – Gnudiff Mar 27 '18 at 16:42
  • 9
    @user4012 Philippines, Tunisia, Pakistan, Israel, Morocco, Jordan as "privileged partners", especially the last is known as "torture by proxy" partner. Saudia Arabia is also considered an ally, apart from being extremely repressive the overwhelming majority of the 9/11 attackers including bin Laden were also Saudis, but strangely it did not change the US relationship. That was a bad accusation. – Thorsten S. Mar 27 '18 at 18:38
  • 4
    @Thorsten S. Saudi dominates OPEC and helps to ensure OPEC exclusively trades oil in USD. The large trade surpluses are then used to buy US armaments. Saudi Arabia is basically a machine for converting oil to billions of dollars of income to the US military. The US ignores the brutal repression in Saudi Arabia. It is hypocrisy. – Sentinel Mar 29 '18 at 7:23
108
  1. After the Crimea annexation, the social media trolling during the US election and the recent Skripal incident, the public image of the Russian government in the western world turned from bad to worse. So the comparison between Putin 2018, Putin 2012 and Medvedev 2008 is not necessarily appropriate.

  2. Trump is under suspicion of colluding with the Russian government to gain an advantage during his presidential election, so any interaction between him and Russia is currently subject to intense scrutiny.

This makes the "Trump congratulates Putin for getting reelected" story a good angle for Trump's political opponents to attack him.

  • 79
    The election itself is also disputed. Fraud is suspected, and candidates were barred from running in the first place. – chirlu Mar 27 '18 at 12:34
  • 77
    @chirlu I was considering to add that. But I decided against it, because none of these election irregularities are that unusual in Russia. So it doesn't help to explain why there was more outrage in 2018 than in 2012 or 2008. – Philipp Mar 27 '18 at 13:30
  • 4
    I think you should change the order of these reasons. It's not just general antipathy at Russia, but for Trump's involvement with Russia in particular, that uch an announcement would receive such special criticism. – Nij Mar 27 '18 at 18:36
  • 34
    Another point I've seen is that Trump congratulates Putin but didn't congratulate allied countries' PMs like Angela Merkel – BruceWayne Mar 28 '18 at 1:12
  • 3
    Also, don't forget. Trump missed the deadline and refused to impose the new sanctions against Russia, voted on nearly unanimously by US Congress. reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/… And I'm sorry, there is a difference between wishing someone well and congratulating them. A congratulation implies an implied endorsement of the election's fairness. Wishing someone well after an election, on the other hand, implies that you're not really congratulating them, but that you're willing to be cordial. – Stephan Branczyk Mar 29 '18 at 19:17
17

When someone is elected in a questionable election, leaders of democratic countries who want positive relations with the country in question will normally wish them a successful term, express hope for future cooperation, or some similar formulation. They usually avoid directly praising the election win, as they do not want to legitimise non-free elections.

Russia's elections are questionable because any vaguely credible alternative to Putin is always prevented from reaching the ballot. Most current western leaders have generally avoided direct praise relating to Putin's election wins even when pursuing better relations with Russia. After the recent election, Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker offered congratulations to Putin for winning the election, and both were heavily criticised for it. I suspect the latter doesn't really make the news outside Europe though.

  • I didn't claim that a majority of Russians hate Putin, or didn't vote for him. I claimed that opponents (e.g. Navalny or Kasparov) are prevented from reaching the ballot. Which is true. I would add that the Russian media are generally not independent of the state, and don't run criticism of Putin. Both factors make Russian democracy questionable. – patstew Apr 10 '18 at 16:52
13

Because the very elections are disputed, and congratulating Putin on winning these elections is a semi-official recognition of these elections.

In 2014, Russia has committed an armed invasion, military occupation, and subsequent attempted annexation of Crimea.
The vast majority of the world countries neither accept nor acknowledge the Russian sovereignty over Crimea. The US repeatedly condemn the occupation, too.
The 2018 elections were held in Crimea.
Hence, the legitimacy of Putin's presidency is disputed.
The White House national security team reportedly warned Trump, literally written in capital letters, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE".


Therefore, the criticism is based on the following reasons:

  1. The legitimacy of Putin as a president is disputed. Any kind of diplomatic action should be carefully considered before the national security team can elaborate an adequate response.
  2. Trump had gone against the advice of his own team, which indicates a deep schism even among the top WH officers.
  3. This also makes stronger the argument of those who accuse Trump of The Collusion, and the accusations are now harder to deny;
  4. The arguments about 2012 do not apply, as shown in existing answers to this question.
  • 4
    How is holding elections in Crimea relevant at all? Putin would've won even without their votes by a strong margin. He even won in Moscow despite there being lots of domestic and local observers there. – JonathanReez Mar 28 '18 at 17:15
  • 1
    But in Trump's case the reasoning was that illegal immigrants can actually change the result of the election, since elections are very tight in the US. This doesn't apply in Russia where Putin has won by a large margin, even if you discount all the votes that have been allegedly falsified. – JonathanReez Mar 28 '18 at 17:55
  • 1
    @JonathanReez, exactly. The very argument that "even if you discount all the votes that…" is precisely what we call "the elections are disputed". Whether or not they are legitimate, to be subsequently established by the authorized entities. – bytebuster Mar 28 '18 at 18:14
  • 2
    @JonathanReez, you then need to convince the Department of State. For example, U.S. Mission to the OSCE statement specifically says: "The United States did not recognize the legitimacy or outcome of the March 2014 referendum, and we do not recognize the elections Russia staged in Crimea on March 18. In Russia-occupied Crimea, by definition, elections conducted by the occupation authorities or under Russian law have no legitimacy." — this leaves little room for interpretation, and my answer is based on the same logic. – bytebuster Mar 29 '18 at 1:30
  • 1
    @JonathanReez I'm not a lawyer, but in my understanding the elections is unitary. There is no such thing as "the President of Russian Federation except Crimea" which could be separately recognized. In other words, one cannot hang only a half of Joachim von Ribbentrop. :-) – bytebuster Mar 29 '18 at 1:48
11

Aside from the other answers, this additionally needs to be seen in the context of current political and media activities. There is an ongoing trend towards hostility and conflict in the relations towards Russia. The recent events together with their political reactions - whether justified or not - have created an atmosphere where Trumps actions stand out from the "party line".

While it is common for state leaders to congratulate each other on elections, at the moment the situation is outside the norm and Trump was criticised in part for going against the general trend.

  • "Trump was criticised in part for going against the general trend" indeed, most recently a few European countries were criticized for not expelling the spies from Russian embassies in their own territory. – Armfoot Mar 28 '18 at 20:25
  • 4
    That they are spies is an assumption - not an unreasonable one, of course, many diplomats serve this double function and the reason we know it is that ours do the same - but it is an assumption. Of course the whole incident gives countries a welcome opportunity to expel those they most strongly suspect of being spies. The affair is too complex for a comment field. I'll just point out that among those against a confrontation course with Russia are such names as Kissinger - certainly not a guy suspect of harboring sympathies for Russia. – Tom Mar 28 '18 at 21:46
5

Another reason for dispute concerning validity and legitimacy of Putin's next term is violation of Russian Constitution:

A person may serve no more than two consecutive terms as a President.

Constitution of Russian Federation, chapter 81, also here

The controversy is that Putin is serving his fourth term, but not consecutive. In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was elected as a president and served 2008-2012 term. However, there are accusations of conspiracy and usurping of power (also referred to as "castling" in media) by those two individuals, long-time friends since 1990-s, which is a heavy criminal offence by Russian legislation. These accusations were submitted to the Russian Supreme court by Putin's rival candidate, Xenia Sobtchak, and rejected by the court (also here). The legal procedure (expert opinion in Russian), after rejection, involves dispute in the Constitutional Court of Russia, which has to rule whether the Constitution was violated or not, and there is a possibility to appeal to international courts. For some reasons, the procedure was not pushed forward by Ms. Sobtchak and her lawyers, leading to various critics accusing her of being a 'spoiler' candidate.

If the accusations of "castling" prove true, then Putin has already been a president for 4 terms by the time of election, which makes him an illegitimate candidate. Add to this the accusations of forging the elections, and extending them to occupied territories, which by itself voids the result (see other answers), murdering political opponents (Boris Nemtsov), and we have Putin's legitimacy severely compromised.

So, by congratulating Putin, President Trump supports a dictator who seized power to himself and imitates democracy for public image.

protected by Philipp Mar 27 '18 at 13:41

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