How To Think About Vladimir Putin – Part 4

Hillsdale College campus plaza in mid-summer, with walkways between the buildings and green grass laws in the foreground, There are large trees in the center of the picture, flanked by large buildings on the right and left sides, and a bright blue sky overhead.

The following [How To Think About Vladimir Putin, by Christopher Caldwell] is adapted from a speech delivered on February 15, 2017, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Phoenix, Arizona.

One theme runs through Russian foreign policy, and has for much of its history. There is no country, with the exception of Israel, that has a more dangerous frontier with the Islamic world. You would think that this would be the primary lens through which to view Russian conduct—a good place for the West to begin in trying to explain Russian behavior that, at first glance, does not have an obvious rationale. Yet agitation against Putin in the West has not focused on that at all. It has not focused on Russia’s intervention against ISIS in the war in Syria, or even on Russia’s harboring Edward Snowden, the fugitive leaker of U.S. intelligence secrets.

The two episodes of concerted outrage about Putin among Western progressives have both involved issues trivial to the world, but vital to the world of progressivism. The first came in 2014, when the Winter Olympics, which were to be held in Sochi, presented an opportunity to damage Russia economically. Most world leaders attended the games happily, from Mark Rutte (Netherlands) and Enrico Letta (Italy) to Xi Jinping (China) and Shinzo Abe (Japan). But three leaders—David Cameron of Britain, François Hollande of France, and Barack Obama of the United States—sent progressives in their respective countries into a frenzy over a short list of domestic causes. First, there was the jailed oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky; Putin released him before the Olympics began. Second, there were the young women who called themselves Pussy Riot, performance artists who were jailed for violating Russia’s blasphemy laws when they disrupted a religious service with obscene chants about God (translations were almost never shown on Western television); Putin also released them prior to the Olympics. Third, there was Russia’s Article 6.21, which was oddly described in the American press as a law against “so-called gay propaganda.” A more accurate translation of what the law forbids is promoting “non-traditional sexual relations to children.” Now, some Americans might wish that Russia took religion or homosexuality less seriously and still be struck by the fact that these are very local issues. There is something unbalanced about turning them into diplomatic incidents and issuing all kinds of threats because of them.

The second campaign against Putin has been the attempt by the outgoing Obama administration to cast doubt on the legitimacy of last November’s presidential election by implying that the Russian government somehow “hacked” it. This is an extraordinary episode in the history of manufacturing opinion. I certainly will not claim any independent expertise in cyber-espionage. But anyone who has read the public documentation on which the claims rest will find only speculation, arguments from authority, and attempts to make repetition do the work of logic.

In mid-December, the New York Times ran an article entitled “How Moscow Aimed a Perfect Weapon at the U.S. Election.” Most of the assertions in the piece came from unnamed administration sources and employees of CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democrats to investigate a hacked computer at the Democratic National Committee. They quote those who served on the DNC’s secret anti-hacking committee, including the party chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the party lawyer, Michael Sussmann. Then a National Intelligence Council report that the government released in January showed the heart of the case: more than half of the report was devoted to complaints about the bias of RT, the Russian government’s international television network.

Again, we do not know what the intelligence agencies know. But there is no publicly available evidence to justify Arizona Senator John McCain’s calling what the Russians did “an act of war.” If there were, the discussion of the evidence would have continued into the Trump administration, rather than simply evaporating once it ceased to be useful as a political tool.

This Part Four of a multi-part series. Keep watch for the next installment!

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. A graduate of Harvard College, his essays, columns, and reviews appear in the Claremont Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Book Review, the Spectator (London), Financial Times, and numerous other publications. He is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, and is at work on a book about post-1960s America.

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

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