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Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is a master at media manipulation. I've witnessed it firsthand while working as a journalist in Moscow, just blocks away from the Kremlin.

The heavy hand of Putin's imprint could be felt on even the economic news dispatches that I sent out from an office in the ITAR-TASS building—an unsightly, dilapidated vestige of the state-run agency looming over Pushkin Square since the Soviet days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 29, 2008. Putin handed out dozens of state awards to various artists, scientists, doctors and members of the armed forces. AFP PHOTO / POOL / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

The twists and turns of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign—email hacks of the Democratic Party machine and praise of foreign leaders by a “nationalist” presidential candidate—make little sense unless one focuses on the powerful figure behind the scenes: Vladimir Putin.

It is easy to mistake Putin's various statements about Trump—he is “talented and bright,” as well as the “absolute leader” in the race—as an endorsement. Contrary to widespread belief, however, the ex-KGB Colonel is not necessarily backing Trump, but hedging his bets in the U.S. election.

Hillary Clinton has been notoriously weak against Putin. Her “reset” button signaled to Putin exactly the kind of naiveté the Russian President desires in a U.S. leader. Clinton's passive foreign policy set the table for the Russian leader to scoff at President Obama's “red line” in Syria.

After Clinton left office, Putin continued his recent aggression against former Soviet republics by leading an incursion into The Crimea, which left a deep scar on Ukraine. When it comes to the “Grand Chessboard,” Putin was playing 3-D chess, and Hillary Clinton was playing checkers.

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Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images

As a plot twist, Donald Trump recently discussed Putin's military annexation of The Crimea this Sunday on ABC's “This Week.”

The Republican presidential candidate argued that Putin would not go into Ukraine if he were president:

“He's not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”

Trump was quick to point out, after prodding for clarification from George Stephanopoulos, that Putin has already 'gone into Ukraine':

“OK — well, he's there in a certain way. But I'm not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you're talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he's going away. He takes Crimea.”

Trump's comments during the ABC interview held out the possibility of recognizing Putin's annexation of the Ukrainian territory:

“I'm going to take a look at it. But you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also ... just so you understand, that was done under Obama's administration.”

Image Credit: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images
Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican presidential candidate's comments provoked a response from the Clinton campaign.

“What is he talking about? Russia is already in Ukraine. Does he not know that? What else doesn't he know?”

“Today, (Trump) gamely repeated Putin's argument that Russia was justified in seizing the sovereign territory of another country by force. This is scary stuff,” Sullivan said in a statement. “But it shouldn't surprise us. This comes on the heels of his tacit invitation to the Russians to invade our NATO allies in Eastern Europe.”

The Clinton adviser is referring to Trump's signaling that the U.S. would not automatically defend Eastern European nations against a Russian attack, but an evaluation would be made on a case-by-case basis depending on if “they have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

As Military.com reported, NATO allies were alarmed:

“This won't be good for NATO unity or the security situation,” said Ojars Kalnins, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Latvia's parliament. “In principle, he is saying the U.S. will not fulfill its promises or obligations.”

There have been other signals to Eastern Europe that the GOP candidate would further soften the already weak stance against Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine. A campaign platform item regarding “providing lethal defensive weapons” was replaced by language that the U.S. should provide ”appropriate assistance.”

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Molly Riley/Stringer/Getty Images

Trump denied knowledge that the platform language had been altered in the ABC interview on Sunday.

“They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved,” Trump said.

Campaign adviser Paul Manafort also denied that there had been a platform change. As reported by The Washington Post:

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Manafort said that the effort to keep the platform from supporting arms for Ukraine, which I first reported last month, “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign.”

“So nobody from the Trump campaign wanted that change in the platform?” Chuck Todd pressed. “No one, zero,” Manafort said.

Trump's criticism of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the U.S. has led since Cold War days, is not as controversial as it has been often made out. The fundamental argument that NATO allies are free-riding off the American people is not unique to the Republican candidate.

It is the overall track record of Trump's statements affecting U.S.-Russian relations, as well as his campaign's ties to Putin, that have many political observers concerned.

The billionaire real estate magnate has hired advisers with close ties to the Russian President, such as Paul Manafort and Gazprom investor Carter Page. Gazprom is a state-controlled corporation that is one of the largest oil and gas firms in the world.

Image Credit: AFP/Stringer/Getty Images
AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

The Russian gas giant is currently under sanctions in the U.S. for its business practices, which include being used as an arm of The Kremlin to wield foreign policy clout over its satellites. As National Review points out, Page thus has a “direct financial interest” in lifting sanctions on Gazprom.

Page, for his part, traveled to Russia before the changes in the Trump platform were made, and declared his belief that economic sanctions on Russia should be lifted. Page argued that U.S. companies should be permitted to exploit Russian oil and gas fields in exchange for the deal.

In the midst of controversy, Trump has been unfazed in his statements on Russia.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?” Trump said at a campaign stop on Tuesday.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has pounced on Trump's statements to develop an uncharacteristically more anti-Russian stance. The DNC was recently the target of an email hack traced to the Russians, as was discussed earlier here at length.

The damaging emails that were released showed the appearance of pro-Hillary bias; not only did the DNC Chair step down in the aftermath, but heads at the DNC continue to roll today.

On the other hand, Donald Trump has been getting glowing coverage on the English-language TV outlet Russia Today, which has long been suspected of being a Kremlin house organ.

Russia's favorable coverage of Donald Trump thus strikes one as surreal. Notoriously anti-American in nature, it is rare to see praise of a U.S. politician in the Russian press—particularly a presidential candidate who vows to strengthen the nation's position in the world and promises to “make America great again.”

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AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

The Moscow Times reported a poll by YouGov that showed Russians want Donald Trump to win the U.S. election by a ratio of three-to-one over Hillary Clinton.

There are no accidents in the Russian state-controlled media.

The Russian news media is tightly constrained by a combination of investments controlled by oligarchs close to the regime and the threat of retaliation for unfavorable coverage.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump earlier denied that there is “any evidence that [Putin] killed anybody in terms of reporters.” As National Review points out, there's a 400-pound bear in the room: No Russian police agency is going to seriously investigate murders if the evidence leads back to The Kremlin.

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 10: Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a speech during the 43rd Conference on Security Policy 2007 at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel on February 10, 2007, in Munich, Germany. The three-day conference takes place from 9-11 February, attended by heads of state, defence ministers and officials. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Numerous “accidents” have happened to journalists and critics who ran afoul of Putin over the years. Paul Klebnikov of Forbes, as well as Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta, are among those who have turned up dead after clashing with The Kremlin.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports 96 journalists killed in Russia between 1991 and 2009, and 56 of these killings were attributed by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be 'work-related.' IFJ puts Russia's “press freedom” as hovering just below that of China and Saudi Arabia.

The presidential candidate, undaunted by questions about his campaign's coziness with Russia, rattled the U.S. media with a call for the former superpower to find Hillary Clinton’s “missing emails“: ”Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."

Trump garnered further attention with praise for the Russian President, stating that Putin is a “better leader” than President Obama.

Trump, for the record, has denied any relationship with Vladimir Putin.

“I have no relationship with Putin. I have no relationship with Putin,” Trump said. “Just so you understand, he said very nice things about me. But I have no relationship with him. I don't — I've never met him.”