To understand why Mr. Putin is rooting for the American billionaire, you have to follow the money – and not just Mr. Trump’s alleged links to Russian businesses.
The Kremlin, analysts here say, is running out of money fast, and needs to find a way to end the Western sanctions that were levelled against it in 2014 over its actions in Ukraine. Mr. Trump, they believe, may be the man to bring about the financial relief Moscow needs.
Not because the Kremlin is expecting he would immediately lift sanctions – though there have been reports that top Russian officials met with Mr. Trump’s adviser Carter Page to discuss just that – but because a Trump victory is expected to shatter the unity of the West and send European governments looking elsewhere for leadership in the world.
“They like to think that if Trump wins, then there is no hope for unity in the West, and if something is bad for the West, then it is good for Russia,” said Nikolai Petrov, an independent political analyst.
Two years ago, Russian troops were entering Crimea ahead of its annexation from Ukraine and the Kremlin was activating its separatist allies in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. At the time, Russia’s Reserve Fund – largely accumulated during Mr. Putin’s first decade in power when oil prices were frequently more than $100 (U.S.) a barrel and the domestic economy was growing – stood at nearly $90-billion.
Today, as oil prices linger below $50 a barrel and the economy contracts for a third consecutive year – all while Russia is pouring funds into Crimea, and waging war in faraway Syria – the Reserve Fund is worth just over $30-billion, having been depleted by $6-billion to cover overspending in August alone.
A draft budget submitted last week to Russia’s parliament, the Duma, called for steep cuts to health services, education and even previously sacrosanct defence spending, which has risen in past years as Mr. Putin has modernized his country’s army and deployed it abroad. Even still, Russia’s Finance Ministry expects the Reserve Fund to be completely depleted some time next year, just ahead of presidential elections in 2018, when Mr. Putin is widely expected to run for another six-year term.
There’s loud worry about the tightening finances, and talk that Mr. Putin may be forced to call an early vote to avoid having to campaign for re-election just as his government is going broke.
“Putin is demonstrating now that his time horizon is much longer than the 2018 election. That means he either needs to borrow money to finance until the  election, or hold an early election,” Mr. Petrov said. Borrowing abroad is currently very difficult under the sanctions targeting Russia’s banking sector; hence the hope that a victory by Mr. Trump on Tuesday would shake up the international status quo in Russia’s favour.