The cascade of negative news about Russia over the past week — rumors about the secret lovers of Vladimir Putin, the strange re-emergence of an old story about the mysterious death of a Kremlin insider on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, and now the sensationalized release of the Panama Papers detailing the $2 billion offshore trail that leads to Putin — are seemingly designed with one goal in mind: to destabilize Russia ahead of Duma elections in the fall. Or, to put in more bluntly, to engineer regime change in Putin’s Russia.
Unlike other news items about Russia that typically appear in the mainstream Western media — think the negative reaction to just about anything Russia does in Syria (including the recent liberation of the historic city of Palmyra from ISIS) or charges that Russia is somehow “weaponizing” the migrant flow to Europe — all of which could be included under the general rubric of Russophobia, these new charges against Russia are better thought of as a particularly virulent strain of Russophobia known as Putinophobia. If Russophobia is really just about fear, uncertainty and doubt, then Putinophobia has a very real motive behind it.
Quite simply, the latest scandals and rumors — and especially the leaked Panama Papers — are meant to discredit the Russian regime ahead of Duma elections in the fall, painting (one might say smearing) Vladimir Putin as a corrupt oligarch bankrupting the nation while living a decadent life with Western capitalists in exotic offshore locations. Certainly, the picture does not look good for Putin and his supporters — but that’s the whole point:
According to analysis, as much as $2 billion has been secretly shuffled through banks and shadow companies linked to Putin’s associates; Bank Rossiya, identified by the U.S. as Putin’s personal cashbox, has been instrumental in building a network of offshore companies; Dozens of loans, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, sold between offshore companies for as little as $1 or less.
From the point of view of whoever’s orchestrating these links and rumors — some have suggested George Soros, who called Russia an “existential threat” to Europe after the annexation of Crimea — you kill two birds with two stones. All the corruption charges are meant to pander to supporters of the Russian opposition, which is fond of referring to the ruling party in Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves.” And all the rumors of Putin’s private life are meant to pander to all the social conservatives in Russia, who must be scandalized by the image of a bare-chested pilanderer hanging out on yachts with the sexy ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch.
But notice something very strange about this. The rumors about Putin’s love trysts are based on an anonymous source in US Weekly, a true bastion of journalistic integrity. Stories about the Panama Papers admit that there is no mention of Vladimir Putin at all in any of the papers. Instead, it’s more a case of being guilty by association — both the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, and Putin’s lifelong friend from St. Petersburg, Sergey Rodulgin, were named in the documents. Yes, dig deep enough, and connect all the dots, and there might just be a $2 billion money trail that leads to Putin.
And, there’s something just a little bit sordid of how exactly the Panama Papers were leaked to the media. And, here’s another interesting observation — the list of individuals named in the Panama Papers apparently does not include a single U.S. citizen. Puzzle over that one — if this were truly just a big anonymous data dump, then wouldn’t the names of at least a few U.S. tax cheats and business swindlers end up on the list? After all, this list of embarrassing documents and papers is apparently way bigger than anything involved in Wikileaks.
The question is — if this really was a targeted attack against Russia, where do we go from here? Russia has explicitly said it would not tamper in U.S. elections in 2016, but can we say the same thing about the U.S.? If you buy into the whole conspiracy model of politics, then the U.S. has already engineered regime change in Ukraine — what’s to think that a few wonks in the U.S. State Department wouldn’t thinking of trying the same thing in Russia?
Here’s how the regime change thesis works… Step 1 — Get ordinary Russians riled up enough with all these corruption stories so that they take to the streets. Step 2 — Provide support to political opposition groups who are willing to organize mass-scale protests in cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Step 3 — Wait for the cauldron to boil over. If nothing happens immediately, attempt to stage some provocations to get some good video footage of OMON thugs beating innocent Russian citizens that can be played on an endless loop on CNN. Step 4 — Provide funding for Russian opposition parties in upcoming Duma elections, in the hopes that they can topple United Russia (the current party of power) in the State Duma. Step 5 — Work with this new “party of power” to find a replacement for Putin.
There’s just one small flaw with this 5-step program for regime change: Russia has already pre-empted many of these moves. The Kremlin has already seen the potential for tampering and apparently even predicted that the West would launch a massive “information attack” a week before the Panama Papers were released. And after the Panama Papers were released, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the “insinuations” in the leak don’t even deserve a response.
Such ‘leaks’, in our view, are meant to target audiences overseas. It is also clear that the degree of Putinophobia has reached a point where to speak well about Russia, or about some of its actions and successes is impossible. One needs to speak [about Russia] in negative terms, the more the better, and when there’s nothing to say, you need to make things up. This is obvious to us…
Moreover, to deflect any concerns that upcoming 2016 Duma elections would be hopelessly rigged, the Kremlin has already appointed a new head of the Central Election Commission — the renowned and highly respected human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova. Finally, there are actually signs that United Russia, stirring out of a long stagnation, is actually making signs of trying to stage American-style debates and primaries ahead of these Duma elections.
Even if you view the latest moves by the Kremlin ahead of the Duma elections as a form of Potemkin democracy, it’s clear that the Kremlin is paying attention and taking steps to address any concerns. There’s even a theory that the Kremlin is winding up military operations in Syria out of concern that the war against ISIS might be a negative campaign issue for Russian politicians hoping to remain in office.
Let’s just hope the latest moves by the West to destabilize Russia don’t devolve into an escalating hybrid war fought with non-military means. If the Kremlin truly believes that the Panama Papers were motivated by Putinophobia, then you don’t really think they’ll sit around and take this one on the cheek, do you? These might turn out to be an interesting next nine months for U.S. President Barack Obama, who is by now desperately hoping that he can fob off his Russia problem on Hillary Clinton.