Opinion: The western notion of Putin as evil genius

Why is Vladimir Putin’s Russia seen as uniquely evil?

The question comes to mind again following former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn’s decision to plead guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about his conversations in late 2016 with Russia’s then ambassador to Washington.

So far, most reportage has concentrated on the effect this will have on U.S. President Donald Trump.

But I’m stuck on a prior question: Why did Flynn feel it necessary to lie in the first place? What was wrong with someone sure to be a key member of the new administration talking to an important foreign ambassador?

Specifically, what was wrong with Flynn’s asking Russia not to escalate a round of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions?

Technically, Flynn could have been charged under an obscure 1799 law aimed at preventing private citizens from discussing matters of state with foreign entities. But it’s a law that, for obvious reasons, has never been used.

I expect Flynn wouldn’t have bothered lying to the FBI about conversations with, say, the Canadian ambassador on matters of mutual interest. But, in this climate, talking to the Russians was simply one step too far.

The ostensible reason is the widely held belief that Russian hackers working under Putin’s orders undermined the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The unspoken corollary is that Putin is responsible for Trump’s victory. The reigning conspiracy theory is that Trump and/or his minions colluded with Putin to bring this about.

All of this is possible. Sometimes there are conspiracies.

The simpler explanation, however, is that Trump won because his brand of right-wing populism worked particularly well in the complicated U.S. electoral college system and because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, ran a terrible campaign.

But the conspiracy theory fits the popular western notion of Putin as evil genius.

I’m not sure why this notion holds. It is true that Russian elections are stacked. But as longtime political operative Donna Brazile has pointed out in a recent book, so is the U.S. Democratic Party’s nomination process.

At least the Russians do have elections, a nicety that the Saudis, say, don’t bother with.

Putin is justly criticized for unilaterally annexing Crimea to Russia. Yet no western government berates China for its unilateral annexation of Tibet in 1950.

Beijing’s argument that Tibet is historically part of China is accepted. Putin’s argument that Crimea is historically part of Russia is not.

Indeed, the West’s kid-glove treatment of Chinese President Xi Jinping stands in stark contrast to the way it approaches Putin. Xi is not routinely denounced as an undemocratic autocrat, although he is one.

Canada, for instance, has imposed economic sanctions against figures around Putin for their gross violation of human rights. It has done nothing against Chinese rights violators close to Xi.

Some of the reasons for this double standard are economic. China is the world’s second-largest economy. Western business people want a piece of the action.

To that end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to China this week is focused on trade and investment.

Don’t expect sunny Trudeau to dwell on downers such as Xi’s human rights record.

Other reasons for the double standard are geopolitical. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West became accustomed to a diminished Russia. To see it reasserting itself today in its traditional spheres of influence – Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Baltic states, Central Asia – is disconcerting.

China is also reasserting itself, particularly in the South China Sea. But that has given rise to little popular alarm in the West.

Which brings me back to Michael Flynn and America’s current fascination with the Russian threat. The notion of Trump as Putin’s malleable tool has the eerily familiar ring of Cold War paranoia. And it is equally improbable.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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