MOSCOW—In living rooms and kitchens across Russia and Ukraine, the U.S. presidential election is as riveting to TV viewers as “Game of Thrones” is to their American counterparts. Every time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Crimea, Russian hackers or the Donbas (the disputed region of eastern Ukraine)—and it’s rebroadcast here, which it usually is—people in both countries sit up as if some crazy American reality show has just come on. Almost every day, television channels in both countries highlight America’s new scandals and intrigues involving Trump’s connections with post-Soviet oligarchs, or leaked DNC emails, or the endless hurling of insults and the constant debate over America’s supposedly disappearing greatness.
But the main reason the U.S. election has become must-see TV is not because it’s a great reality show, or because Putin and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine come up as issues in the campaign as often as Mexican immigrants, ISIS and Benghazi. It’s because the political rhetoric across the Atlantic is actually starting to change facts on the ground in Russia and Ukraine. In both countries, coverage of the political chaos in the United States—the north star of politics for both anti-American and pro-American figures in this part of the world—is stirring public discontent and doubt about the future in Ukraine, and a sense of confidence, even arrogance, in Russia.
In short, the rhetoric in the U.S. election campaign—especially Trump’s—is already altering policy in the region, hardening Moscow’s attitude toward Ukraine and at the same time frustrating and confusing the Ukrainians who want to stand up to Putin.
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