Foon Rhee

Is Russia photo just coincidence, or conspiracy fodder?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, attends an celebration of RT’s 10th anniversary on Dec. 10, 2015 with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, to Putin’s right, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick as national security adviser. Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein is three seats to Putin’s left.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, attends an celebration of RT’s 10th anniversary on Dec. 10, 2015 with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, to Putin’s right, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick as national security adviser. Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein is three seats to Putin’s left. Sputnik/Kremlin pool photo via AP

The first time I saw the photo I had to take a second look. And a third.

It shows Russian President Vladimir Putin at a celebration in Moscow to mark the 10th anniversary of RT, the English-language news network (and propaganda machine) funded by his regime.

Seated just to his right is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. His name is Michael Flynn, and he’s now preparing to become President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

Across the table is another familiar face. It’s none other than Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president.

I’m highly skeptical of conspiracy theories, but this is how they start.

At the very least, it’s an extremely curious coincidence given what’s happened in the year since the photo was snapped by the Kremlin pool photographer.

No matter how much Trump wants to be in denial, it’s clear that Russia waged a campaign of cyberattacks and disinformation that targeted Democrats and tried to sow confusion and distrust among voters. The CIA and FBI agree that Putin’s government tried to tip the scales toward Trump.

You’d have to say it succeeded: Trump pulled a historic upset, America is even more divided and lots of people are questioning our electoral process. Though President Barack Obama is promising some unspecified payback, Russia is a clear winner.

The next leader of the free world wants friendlier relations and keeps filling his inner circle with FOPs – friends of Putin, a former KGB spymaster. Trump loyalists are already showing up in Moscow and saying he’s open to lifting U.S. sanctions. And Putin’s popularity among Republican voters has skyrocketed in the last two years.

“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said Friday.

It’s like a movie – something like “The Manchurian Candidate” comes to mind – but it’s so far-fetched that, as the cliché goes, you couldn’t sell this script in Hollywood.

The photo epitomizes this crazy election year. It was taken Dec. 10, 2015, but got much wider notice after Trump picked Flynn last month for the top national security post. Actually, I don’t think it got enough attention; these days, it apparently takes even stranger things to make headlines for more than one news cycle.

Like Trump, Flynn and Stein have called for closer U.S. relations with Russia, despite its annexation of Crimea, its aggression in Ukraine and its threat to our allies in Europe.

Flynn has defended Russia’s intervention, in alliance with the brutal Assad regime, in the Syrian civil war and called for closer cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East. The headline on the RT website story on his appointment called him “Russia-loving.”

As for Stein, she was criticized by the Russian Green Party for cozying up to Putin and not speaking out against Russia’s human rights abuses against the LGBT community, political dissidents and others her party is supposed to represent. Since the election, she’s the one who pushed for recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – three typically Democratic states that flipped and gave Trump the presidency. Her motive was suspect; her vote total didn’t rise, but her fundraising increased and so did doubts about the election.

Then we get the bizarre news that the leader of the #Calexit movement is living in Russia and working with an anti-American group backed by the Kremlin.

Whatever’s going on, Putin must be one happy despot.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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