One of my main gripes with Russia-bashing journalists is the apparent laziness of much of their output. There are lots of stories which could legitimately be used to paint Russia in a bad light (I’ll discuss one of those later this week). But instead of doing the hard work of investigatory journalism, they instead propose radical ideas based on wild speculation. In this way, their work comes to resemble the ‘Russian propaganda’ they so like to despise.
Take, for instance, the latest Guardian article by Luke Harding. This contains a veritable smorgasbord of allegations which are not only unsubstantiated but also quite extreme.
First, Harding lists a whole load of things that ‘Putin wants’, which may indeed be what Putin wants, but then again may not be, as Harding doesn’t tell us how he knows what Putin is privately thinking. Next, having mentioned that Western countries have sanctioned various members of the Russian president’s entourage, he adds, ‘It’s widely believed in Washington that their assets are Putin’s, running into the hundreds of billions of dollars.’ The last time I heard this rumour, Putin was reported to be worth $40 billion. Now, ‘it’s hundreds of billions’. Where on earth does this figure come from?
Whatever the answer, Harding imagines that Putin has found a use for his hypothetical ill-gotten cash – giving it to Donald Trump. Harding mentions Trump’s connections to Paul Manafort, who was previously an advisor to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. On the basis of this connection, he says: ‘It’s unclear how much Russian cash underpins Trump’s sprawling property portfolio.’ By ‘unclear’, he means that he doesn’t actually have any evidence that Trump is bankrolled by the Russians. His only support is a quotation from Francis Fukuyama to the effect that Trump has never said anything negative about Putin. ‘Fukuyama asked if Putin had “hidden leverage”, “perhaps in the form of debts to Russian sources that keep his business empire afloat”,’ Harding notes
Does Trump actually owe the Russians a lot of money? ‘Again, no one knows,’ says Harding. Nevertheless, he feels confident enough to add, ‘For months, lurid theories have circulated about what compromising information Russia’s spy agencies may have on Trump. The FSB – the successor agency to the KGB, once run by Putin – specialises in gathering kompromat, material that might be used for blackmail. The agency is adept at bugging, clandestine video surveillance and other covert tricks.’ On a visit to Moscow, Trump stayed in the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The Russian secret services may have filmed him there and got something to blackmail him with, Harding says. ‘There is no proof that any compromising video exists,’ he writes, ‘But the FSB would certainly have been interested in this kind of stuff: this is, after all, what it does.’ Actually, not only is there ‘no proof’; there’s no evidence at all!
Put all this together, and what do we have? ‘It’s widely believed’; ‘it’s unclear’; ‘perhaps’; ‘no one knows’; ‘lurid theories’; ‘there is no proof’. Surely the Kremlin critics can do better than this?