Donald Trump has said that as president he would get along with Vladimir Putin, and there's evidence that the Republican frontrunner's apparent fondness for the Russian strongman is being reciprocated.
Kremlin mouthpiece Konstantin Rykov said Wednesday in a Twitter post that Trump won the first Democratic presidential debate, held Tuesday in Las Vegas. In that tweet, Rykov linked to a Russian language, pro-Trump website with a Russian domain, www.Trump2016.ru, that he is likely behind. Until a few weeks ago, Rykov's Twitter home page featured Trump and his 2016 campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."
Western sources who monitor Russian politics told the Washington Examiner that Rykov is a propagandist arm of the Putin government machine. "Rykov is considered to be one of the leading pro-Kremlin bloggers in Russia," said Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank. "As you can see from his Twitter feed, he is very active. And he loves Trump."
Another source described Rykov as a "chief voice and troll for the Kremlin on Twitter."
Rykov is a media entrepreneur who has worked in Russian media and launched technology firms that are connected to the Kremlin. He has been closely associated with the Russian government under Putin and ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, and served briefly in Russia's parliament. Although his social media activities aren't strictly Kremlin-related, sources say he doesn't contradict Putin, and his online commentary on international politics serve as a reliable indicator of the Russian president's opinions and preferences.
Rykov has created a series of websites, similar to Trump2016.ru, or used his Twitter page to post opinions on international politics. He often promotes rightwing political figures; for instance, he has previous promoted the National Front, a French nationalist political party, and its leaders, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter, Marine Le Pen. Rykov also uses events to draw favorable comparisons to Kremlin policy, such as likening Scotland's independence movement to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The international political figures that Rykov plays up, said the source, "tend to express views that are more friendly to the Kremlin," at least as far as Moscow is concerned. These figures also tend to be "supportive of engagement" with Russia, if not outright apologists for what others describe as Putin's aggressive foreign policy and repressive measures at home.
Putin has moved to thwart U.S. interests at every turn. His military intervention in Syria to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad is just the latest example. Russian forces have targeted Syrian rebels aligned with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State, and have basically warned Washington not to intervene. Meanwhile, Putin is coordinating its moves with Iran, another regime at odds with the U.S. in the Middle East.
All of this has earned Putin the scorn of the Republicans (and Democrats) running to succeed Obama — except for Trump, who leads most GOP primary polls and ranks first in the Examiner's presidential power rankings.
The New York billionaire businessman and reality television star has tempered his criticism of Putin, who has a stranglehold over Russia's government and media. In various interviews, Trump has either resisted hitting Putin or offered mild critiques while predicting that he would establish a good working relationship with him if he's elected president. In the latest example, Trump declined to blame Russia for the downing of a passenger jetliner over Ukraine despite evidence of Moscow's involvement.
Asked by NBC News correspondent Katy Tur if he would hold Putin accountable if he were president, Trump dodged.
"Well, you know, they say it wasn't them. It may have been their weapon, but they didn't use it, they didn't fire it. They even said the other side fired it to blame them. I mean, to be honest with you, you'll probably never know for sure," he said. "It was probably Russia. It was probably people involved with — on the pro-Russia side. But I think we have to straighten our own problems out right now, Katy. We have some very big problems. And we can get involved in all of these — it's a horrible thing, all those people dying."
In a recent interview with CBS "Face the Nation" host John Dickerson, Trump had this to say about Putin:
"I think the biggest thing we have is that we were on '60 Minutes' together and we had fantastic ratings. One of your best-rated shows in a long time," he said, light-heartedly. "So that was good, right? So we were stable mates."
"I think that I would at the same time get along very well with him. He does not like Obama at all. He doesn't respect Obama at all. And I'm sure that Obama doesn't like him very much," Trump added. "But I think that I would probably get along with him very well. And I don't think you'd be having the kind of problems that you're having right now."