US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Brendan Smialowski

As expected, the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki produced a media circus across the Atlantic. Western commentators were hell-bent on insulting President Donald Trump as a traitor and denigrating President Vladimir Putin as an “autocrat,” “dictator” and the “enemy” of the free world, the United States in particular.

Never mind that Putin is an elected president and the whole of Russia is dreaming about normalizing relations with the United States. Never mind that with all Robert Mueller’s indictments there’s a long way to go to make a case for a Trump/Putin conspiracy. The point is, Putin has become the Western media’s devil incarnate, and Trump the same media’s favorite whipping boy.

In one astute observation, Western media exhibit a “Russophrenia” – “a condition where the sufferer believes Russia is both about to collapse, and take over the world.”

When Trump himself calls the establishment’s attitude toward Russia a “rigged witch hunt,” the question must arise: What is going on and why does Russia have the honor of being singled out in a world of dozens of real autocrats who hate the West and murder their political opponents?

Yes, Russia is a big country with nuclear weapons, which allows it to shoot above its weight in international politics. Yes, it openly supported the pro-Russian referendum in Crimea and annexed the peninsula soon thereafter. And yes, it does provide military support to the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. But given all the secessionist movements supported by outside forces across the world, none of this (save nuclear weapons) is remarkable enough to merit the special treatment.

At the same time, be it in politics or in the economy, Russia’s real impact on the United States is minuscule. Hacking or not, nobody can seriously claim that Moscow could sway the outcome of the US presidential elections.

Russia does not make it to the list of the top 10 economies in the world, trailing South Korea and Canada. The value of US goods exports to Russia in 2017 was less than US$7 billion, while goods imports from Russia were valued at slightly more than $17 billion. The total trade turnover was barely above 0.1% of the US gross domestic product.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and the top US creditor. It owns 19% of the US debt, more than any other nation. China’s military expenditures are almost four times Russia’s. Most experts agree that China is about to displace the US as the world’s largest and most influential economy. Why Russia, and not China, is being painted as America’s chief geopolitical foe is hard to grasp.

Why Russia, and not China, is being painted as America’s chief geopolitical foe is hard to grasp. It is also hard to grasp the intensity of vilification of either Putin or Trump in Western media

It is also hard to grasp the intensity of vilification of either Putin or Trump in Western media. The Obama-era director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, calls the summit “nothing short of treasonous” – an accusation never applied to Trump’s admittedly one-sided concessions to Kim Jong-un. The Washington Post talks of appeasement. The Daily Mirror calls Trump “Putin’s poodle.” The New York Times has muddied itself enough to carry a cartoon depicting the two leaders as gay lovers.

Such a level of hostility was not even demonstrated against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. It is clearly unimaginable with regards to Communist Party-led China or even one-man-ruled North Korea. Yet it is acceptable and encouraged with respect to the third-rate capitalist country that Russia has now become.

And it is here, perhaps, where the key to the puzzle lies. It is not wise to hurl street-level insults at a country that is your real geopolitical competitor and has enough power to make you regret your behavior.  That was the case with the USSR yesterday, and this is the case with the People’s Republic of China today.

The ideological challenge presented to freewheeling capitalist individualism by stern communist collectivism also helped to maintain a modicum of respect throughout the Cold War years. It was only when Russia went capitalist, and conspicuously failed to advance into the ranks of the top economies, that former respect gave way to contempt. It was only after Russia abandoned its communist ethics that it became subject to the Western media hooliganism exemplified by The New York Times’ distasteful satire.

Western hatred of Putin cannot be explained by Crimea, or Donbass, or the alleged poisoning of four individuals of no interest to the Kremlin by a military-grade nerve toxin with a recognizably “Russian” signature. It can be explained by one thing only – Russia’s successful opposition to the US world-domination machine.

Were Russia still a Soviet socialist state, this hatred could yet be complemented by respect. But a capitalist Russia trying to oppose the world’s leading capitalist nation, while falling ever further behind in trade and economy – such a Russia can only elicit hatred complemented with contempt. Which makes for ever more vitriolic Russophrenia.

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Mikhail Molchanov

Mikhail Molchanov is a policy analyst and international relations observer based in Canada. He has worked as senior policy analyst for the federal government, and as professor of political science at several Canadian universities. He has authored and co-authored seven books and nearly 120 articles and book chapters.

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