Since Trump won US election, Russia-bashing industry has never had it so good

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Since Trump won US election, Russia-bashing industry has never had it so good
For some years now, people have been able to write any rubbish about Russia in the Western press and suffer hardly any consequences. This irresponsible approach has led to a feeding frenzy since Donald Trump won last fall's race for the White House.

Two years ago this week, Vladimir Putin died. On Twitter, at least.

And the false reports reached the pages of various news outlets, including web giant Yahoo. What made this 'fake news' more remarkable was how it was primarily spread by the so-called 'expert community.'

Others had different takes. Perhaps he’d been ousted in a palace coup? Or had a stroke? But my favorite made up report came from The Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent, who insisted Putin was in Switzerland attending the birth of a new child. The idea of Putin going on secret paternity leave was deliciously preposterous.

All this hysteria served to distract from more pertinent, applicable, valid and authentic issues. Such as perhaps how obsessing so much over one political figure explains why contemporary analysis of "Putin's Russia" is so diabolical? Not to mention the fact that the head of state vanishing into the ether for over a week, without much explanation, might suggest a weakness in the Kremlin’s system. One which doesn’t augur well for the future transition when the President inevitably shuffles off into retirement.

You see, in the circus that is today's Western coverage of Russia, such serious topics are rarely discussed. Because everybody is wedded to sensationalism and looking to make their mark through hysteria. And this problem has multiplied since Trump won the US Presidential election.

Now, it’s open season, and everyone seems to have gone as demented as a frenzied cuckoo. Which is particularly frustrating for the diminishing band who are trying to be responsible on this beat.

Fake news

Only last month, we’ve seen the editor of The Moscow Times, who should know better (and probably does) telling America’s Vox “How Putin made Trump his puppet.” However, the latter’s favorite TV channel, Fox, apparently doesn’t agree with Mikhail Fishman because they think Putin is testing his “pawn” in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, prominent US hack Rachel Maddow was trying to portray Washington’s new Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, as "a Russian stooge." And Sarah Kendzior, once a highly respected Central Asia analyst, accused Putin of murdering Vitaly Churkin, Moscow’s recently deceased Ambassador to the United Nations. Even more absurdly, she also alleged that the late diplomat had “recruited Trump to the USSR” in the 1980s. Of course, Kendzior now has a couple of hundred thousand more Twitter followers than when she was tweeting about Uzbekistan. But pushing the idea of “the Donald” as a KGB agent is hardly what she spent years studying for.

Also, this winter, Politico’s Molly McKew told us how Russia is subverting America with Psychological Warfare, and The Observer’s John Schindler warned, without any evidence, that Putin plans to destabilize the Balkans to get revenge on the West. Then, a few weeks later, the same chap, again absent of proof, decided Putin is going to attack Belarus instead. That's the long-time Russian ally Belarus. But, be mindful, because according to Vanity Fair’s London correspondent, Putin's master plan is only beginning.

Covering Russia from London does sound a bit odd. But the Daily Beast attempts it from New York, where its Russia expert (who, by all accounts, has never actually been to Russia) wants us to believe Putin runs the world. If he’d ever visited the country, he'd know it has about 1/8th the population of either the NATO zone or China. And a fraction of the GDP, even by purchasing power parity. That said, perhaps US Republican leader Paul Ryan gets his views from the Daily Beast, for he thinks Russia is a “global menace, led by a man who is menacing.” Yes, it’s really that simplistic.

Downhill slope

While Putin is currently painted as Europe’s answer to Sauron, he’s also endured periods where he’s apparently been on his uppers. In 2012, the New York Times’ Ellen Barry was practically delivering him the last rites, citing a “defiant opposition” that vowed to keep him from serving his full six-year term. Five years later, Putin is still there and a shoo-in to be safely ensconced at the Kremlin for another half dozen trips around the sun, assuming he desires it.

Then there’s the whole 'Russia is a dying bear' thing. One that Barack Obama wrongly subscribed to. By getting poor advice from low-quality advisers. People who probably read Foreign Affairs, which told us in 2011 that Russia was imminently on the way out. A few years before it posted its first natural population increase since the USSR collapse. In fact, as Anatoly Karlin explains here, Russia's demographics are currently better than most of Europe.

This kind of overwrought poppycock could be dubbed 'Aslundism' - based on the work of Anders Aslund, a know-nothing Swedish economist who has made a habit of being totally wrong on Russia. Starting in 1999, when he predicted Russia's fast-approaching total collapse, just before a decade-long economic boom. He doubled down in 2014 and was wrong again. And went for broke in 2016. Nevertheless, he's been rewarded for his counterfactual work with a plum gig at NATO's Atlantic Council adjunct. Because he tells policymakers what they want to hear. Instead of the truth.

Sadly all these falsehoods influence policy makers. Thus, we had Obama saying things like "Russia is a regional power showing weakness over Ukraine," and dismissing Russia as a "weaker country" which upsets Moscow royally and is evidence of a lack of expertise in Washington on the subject.

Good cops

When the odd American voice admits that US-Russia policy has failed, they are drowned out. Or accused of being Putin shills. Witness the absurd attacks on the eminent Stephen Cohen from Michael Weiss (like Aslund, a lobbyist at the Atlantic Council). Or when they attempt to look beyond Putin to the other 145 million-odd Russians, as Sean Guillory does here.

Then there's the "end of Putin" stuff. Ben Judah (a young British writer laughed off the Russia beat after crying wolf too many times) told us in 2014 that Ukraine would bring him down. Just after he'd published a book which hinged on the notion of how Russia had fallen out of love with its head honcho. He has followed the lead of The Economist, in 2012, and Julia Ioffe, in 2011, who was adamant that the Bolotnaya protest movement would finish him off.

In 2016, the American Interest forecast a systemic collapse. The same year, the Washington Post editorial board predicted Putin's looming demise. And Vox (again) in 2015 painted the President as ‘weak.' A few months later, Foreign Affairs led with "Lights Out for the Putin Regime - The Coming Russian Collapse" by Alexander Motyl, an ethnic Ukrainian with skin in the game, who is surely the owner of a badly cracked crystal ball.

This is all wishful thinking, but the problem is it has become accepted mainstream fact, and it's screwing up the formulation of Western policy toward Moscow.

A reality tour

Despite constant warnings of how Russia is “broke,” it actually has the fifth largest foreign currency reserves in the world. More than Britain and Germany put together, as it happens.

Meanwhile, rather than slowly dying, it boasts one of Europe’s highest fertility rates, posting better numbers than Germany, Italy or Spain. Furthermore, in 2015, it was the world’s second largest immigration destination, after the US.
We also hear how Russia “doesn’t make anything worth buying.”  Yet, it’s the planet’s second biggest military exporter, produces world-class airplanes and is the number one wheat producer. Also, NASA is entirely reliant on Russian spacecraft, due to repeated American failure to produce a reliable alternative option.

Other regular attacks concern“restless voters,”  but Putin has approval ratings of around 86 percent. Or how the middle class is “shrinking”, which ignores how income levels are on a par with mid to low European Union countries, which don’t have such sizable black economies and endure far more punitive tax burdens.

And don’t forget the unrelenting warnings of Russia’s “inevitable” economic collapse. Because these look incredibly silly when you consider how the country has the lowest per capita debt of any Top Ten economy, except China. Yes, the same China that is lauded for its vibrancy.

Media assaults on Russia are nothing new. But they’ve become even more ridiculous since Trump won the White House. At this point, a lot of people would benefit from taking a pause and devoting a bit of time to quiet reflection. On the grounds that, whoever actually said, “Russia is never as strong, or as weak, as she looks,” was probably right.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.