Is Putin playing Trump like he did Berlusconi?

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In January 2009, the U.S. ambassador in Rome cabled Washington to raise an alarm. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the diplomat wrote, had cultivated a troubling relationship with the country’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

“Berlusconi admires Putin’s macho, decisive, and authoritarian governing style, which the Italian PM believes matches his own,” wrote the ambassador, Ronald P. Spogli. “From the Russian side, it appears that Putin has devoted much energy to developing Berlusconi’s trust.“

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The ambassador noted with concern that the brash Italian billionaire, who was driven from office by scandal in 2011, was openly challenging U.S. policy toward Russia and echoing Putin’s views on issues from NATO expansion to Kosovo to missile defense.

And he shared reports from opposition party contacts of a more “nefarious” factor: talk that “Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely” from business ties to Russia.

Seven years after that cable, disclosed by WikiLeaks, the Berlusconi-Putin bromance has acquired a new resonance, as foreign policy analysts and even some U.S. officials see unsettling echoes in the recent long-distance kinship between the Russian leader and Donald J. Trump.

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It may even suggest that Putin is applying a specific method to the GOP nominee. In recent years Putin has befriended several major Western European politicians, including former leaders of France and Germany, who openly challenge U.S. and European policies toward Russia, including NATO’s buildup in Eastern Europe and economic sanctions punishing Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

But Trump is most frequently compared to the 79-year-old Berlusconi. Both men are wealthy populists known for their expensive tastes, outrageous rhetoric, relationships with women and all-around showmanship. Like Berlusconi, Trump has demonstrated an unusual affinity for Putin — along with notable dissent from confrontational U.S. and Western European policies toward Russia.

Putin’s friendship with the Italian may simply demonstrate that the Russian leader has a natural chemistry with a rich, politically incorrect businessman.

To some, however, it hints at something more.

“The parallels with Trump are a little too disturbing,” says a U.S. government analyst who closely tracked Russia’s relationship with Europe when Berlusconi was in office. “Putin is very strategic. He would focus on people’s vulnerabilities — whether their vanity or greed or financial needs.”

That view echoes the analysis of former deputy CIA director Michael Morell, who recently wrote in The New York Times that Putin, drawing from his background as an intelligence officer, had made a “calculated” overture to Trump early in the presidential campaign, “playing upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him,” and turning Trump into an “unwitting agent” of Russia.

Asked about Trump in December, Putin described the New Yorker as “bright and talented,” words that clearly pleased Trump: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” the mogul told reporters soon after. Since then, Trump has praised and defended Putin — including against the charge of having Russian journalists killed — and has pledged to establish better relations with Moscow.

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