We are actually over-vilifying the Russians

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

If you’ve ever met a RUSSIAN, be thankful you’re alive. They’re the Voldemorts of the global economy. Treacherous. Murderous. And the personal henchmen for Donald Trump, needless to say.

This dark belief seems to underlie every revelation of RUSSIAN involvement in… well, anything. The Russian state clearly meddled in last year’s elections in the United States, while seeking every opportunity to sow discord in Europe and other democratic regions. Western authorities need to get to the bottom of that and figure out how to fight back against such interference. If Americans or other Westerners broke the law, they should be prosecuted vigorously.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hamburg, Germany on July 7. Photo: Reuters

But it’s also worth keeping in mind that Russia has a largish economy and is a major player in the energy sector, making it hard to ignore, even with Western sanctions that have been in place since 2014. The recent “Paradise Papers” revealed that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was a private-equity buyout specialist before joining the Trump administration, retains an ownership stake in a shipping company with big clients in the energy business. One of those clients is a Russian energy firm called Sibur, whose owners include the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and another Putin crony. Smoking gun!

If you’re wondering what the crime is, however, well, so is everybody else. Ross filed an elaborate disclosure form when nominated to be Commerce Secretary in 2016, but it didn’t list every investment by every entity he had a stake in and Ross omitted his connection to Sibur. Nobody is saying Ross should have disclosed every investment, only that the Senate would have liked to know that Ross did business with a couple of prominent Russians. Had they known, would it have changed anything? Probably not.

Tainted by Russian connections

But now Ross has been tainted by association with “Russians,” as have other members of the Trump administration. Some of those connections are quite problematic. Prosecutors working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have indicted Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s business partner, Richard Gates, for business dealings with pro-Russian Ukrainians that allegedly involved fraud and money laundering. Crimes, in other words. Other Trump campaign officials seem to have sought Russian help digging up campaign dirt on Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, which was ham-handed at best and criminal at worst. Mueller will presumably enforce the law aggressively, as he should.

The problem is there’s a big difference between doing business with Russians — the way a global business might interact with the Chinese, the Peruvians or the Egyptians — and engaging in some kind of conspiracy with the Russian state, to help fulfill political goals. A business deal isn’t automatically a crime just because Russians are involved.

Russia’s huge presence

Russia is the world’s second-largest producer of both oil and natural gas, with about 12% of the global oil market and more than 16% of the world’s gas production. It ships energy all over the world, so if you’re in the business of energy transportation, you’re almost certainly going to encounter Russian firms. Corruption has undoubtedly put most of Russia’s energy wealth in the hands of a few politically connected kleptocrats. But nobody expects Western firms to redress that problem, which would obviously be impossible. What Western firms are required to do is abide by the laws of the countries they operate in.

If Ross broke some law or violated a U.S. government code of conduct, then there should be appropriate consequences. But if he didn’t, we should stop pretending to be appalled by everybody who has any interaction with the dastardly Russians. When we create bogeymen and attribute all known evil to them, we excuse our own transgressions and fail to examine our own mistakes. Clinton lost because her campaign was dull and her connection with working Americans was weak. That’s the problem Democrats need to solve, instead of complaining that Russians cost them victory.

Identify law breakers. Punish them. And aggressively combat Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy. But don’t see a villain in every dacha. Worry instead about our own villains.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman