Russia has recently been accused of using “hybrid war” to de-stabilize Germany and whip up opposition to its Chancellor Angela Merkel. Earlier this month, the western media, egged on by NATO, pushed the notion that the Kremlin was “weaponizing migration” to undermine Europe.
In fact, there’s very little Russia hasn’t been accused of “weaponizing” over the past few years. It’s well known that a motley crew of activists make a decent living through bashing the country for various media outlets and think tanks. And boy are they creative in their efforts.
From “weaponizing” Soviet history (Newsweek, July 2015) to “weaponizing” finance (Business Insider, June 2015) to “weaponizing” Photoshop – yes, really! – (Global Voices, March 2014), an incredible amount of bases have been covered. Probably the most comprehensive was the US government-owned propaganda blog, The Interpreter, which accused the Kremlin of “weaponizing information, culture and money.”
Now, it’s Moscow’s turn to play the victim in this regard. This week, President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has claimed that, unidentified, foreign governments, NGO’s and media are seeking to disrupt Russia’s 2016 parliamentary election and taint president Vladimir Putin’s reputation. “Weaponizing” smears, if you like.
“They continue to actively try to influence our country, they continue to rock the boat in our country,” Peskov insisted, adding that the primary aim was to “discredit President Putin.”
The spokesman warned that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists were homing in on Putin’s private life, his family and friends. He claimed that the consortium, which he believes to include members of different security services, was readying “an information attack” – which he labelled “an undisguised paid-for hack job”.
Peskov’s comments are instructive, but not surprising. It’s hardly a secret that the West dislikes Vladimir Putin. It’s also more than obvious that much of the American, NATO and EU establishment are praying for the day he departs the main political stage. Indeed, Putin has been the target of a pronounced, and highly organised, defamation campaign for almost a decade now.
The focus on Putin’s finances began in earnest back in 2007. The Guardian, Washington Post and Die Welt all claimed that Putin had a $40 million fortune. The Guardian article, penned by its former Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, is, to this day, continuously used to back up similar allegations in other media. For years, it was always $40 million. If they were right, Putin obviously gave up stealing in 2007 and didn’t spend any of the money for a long time. He was a frugal chap in that imaginary world.
Despite being so prominently referenced across the mainstream western media, Harding’s piece had a single source. Which is hardly best practice. That informant was one Stanislav Belkovsky. Neither Belkovsky or Harding produced a scintilla of actual evidence to back up the charges. In 2013, Belkovsky wrote a book that claimed Putin was “latently gay.” This tome was heavily pushed by Germany’s Der Spiegel. Again proving that you can write any old nonsense about Putin and the more absurd and adverse it is, the more publicity you will get. To date, nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever lost a job or reputation from being hopelessly wrong about Putin’s Russia.
The $40 million sum was upgraded to £140 million (around $200 million) this year. This time, the source, cited, by the UK newspaper The Sun, was Bill Browder, a former hedge fund manager and professional Russia critic. The allegation followed a documentary on Britain’s state-controlled BBC called ‘Putin’s Secret Riches.’ While the show was big on hyperbole, it was thin on facts and none of its accusations would stand up in any first-world courtroom.
What these activists and hacks don’t seem to get is that Putin doesn’t need a vast fortune. People who really understand Russia know this. In the kind of political culture that exists here, the national leader has far more power and influence that in mature western democracies. Russia has only been a nascent democracy for 25 years, and old habits die hard.
The President has the resources of the Russian state available to him. With governmental jumbo jets and sumptuous government residences, from Valdai to Sochi, he doesn’t need billions of dollars. The constant attempts to smear Putin as some kind of kleptomaniac totalitarian are largely laughed at in Russia. While they may make some Western activists feel all warm and gooey inside, they are ultimately futile. In fact, they only serve to further consolidate most voters around Putin.