There are certain real grounds for Western concern about aspects of Russian policy. These however are by far not the most important thing about the current obsession gripping the US media and political scene and the security elites in the USA and Europe. This should be seen rather as the product of two motives, one conscious, the other largely unconscious. The first is a passionate desire to bring down the Trump administration, a desire which goes beyond normal opposition and is rooted in a belief on the part of many Americans in that administration’s fundamental illegitimacy.
The second motive is a profound desire on the part of the US and European liberal elites not to think seriously about the reasons why Trump was elected - because to do so would require them to make some extremely painful and difficult changes to their own behaviour. In that sense, it could be said, figuratively speaking, that Bernie Sanders is as much a target of this hysteria as is Trump.
More generally, whipping up fear of Russia allows elites in both the USA and Europe to continue to structure their institutions and strategies around an adversary that is familiar, comfortable and fundamentally safe. The whole point about NATO during all the years of the Cold War and after is that it never fought Russia and has no intention of doing so now. Not one NATO soldier was ever killed by Russia. NATO’s strategic speciality is shadow-boxing, not war.
This permits Western elites and institutions created for the purposes of another age to present themselves as still essential by engaging in an essentially risk free ”crisis”, and thereby not having to think about how to address the real threats facing Western democracies, threats which have nothing to do with Russia, which are horribly difficult to address, but which if left unaddressed are likely to become literally existential in the decades to come. These existential threats include economic change leading to the immiseration of large parts of the population; mass migration, especially from the Muslim world; and beyond these, the looming threat of climate change. To win back Trump’s voters would require an economic policy more radical than anything the Democrats have contemplated for decades, one that would be very uncomfortable for their multi-millionaire leaders like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and their wealthy sponsors. As to the undemocratic aspect of Trump’s election, this lies not in Russian interference but in a late-18th Century US Constitution which is in obvious and desperate need of reform – a reform however which no-one in the US elites seems willing even to talk about.
The accusations against Russia in the Western media can be split roughly into two: the specific charges of involvement in the US election process and manipulation of the Trump administration, and the general one of posing a threat of aggression against the West. The accusation of involvement in the US political process in turn breaks down into two parts, the specific accusation of hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the broader ones of covert influence over the Trump administration.
If one is to believe the US intelligence services, there does seem some evidence of Russian responsibility for hacking the emails – though if you read the reports in the more responsible US media with any care, you will find buried deep in the articles quotes by General James Clapper and other senior figures stating that they are unable to state this as a confirmed fact. If confirmed, such Russian actions are certainly wrong and offensive, and should lead to diplomatic protests by the US. Such protests could be modelled on those of the German and other allied governments to Washington when they discovered that the US National Security Agency had been spying on the communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders. In other words, people living in glass houses can of course in certain circumstances throw things, but they should be softballs, not stones. Even more importantly, what the emails revealed was not “fake news”. It was entirely accurate news, leading to very legitimate concerns about DNC bias in favour of Hilary Clinton and Clinton’s links to Wall Street; and if it had been revealed by US journalists they would have been regarded as only doing their jobs.
Concerning the wider issue of illicit Russian influence on the Trump administration, there is not one shred of serious let alone concrete evidence for this. At the heart of it lies an allegation by a retired former British intelligence officer who cannot be contacted, which cites unnamed Russian sources, and has been described as “plausible” by unnamed US intelligence officials. On top of this has been built an entirely fictitious scandal about a nominated National Security Adviser and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting with the Russian ambassador, in supposed violation of a law of 1799 that no-one had ever heard of, and that if applied to other countries (including China, let alone Israel) would compel the prosecution of almost all people who have ever served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the National Security Council.
One can sympathise with the Democrats and the liberal media’s desire to bring down Trump. One can also sympathise with their choice of weapons to do. Given the outrageous behaviour of the Republicans over the years in concocting fake issues and conspiracy theories to attack Democratic administrations, this does indeed look like poetic justice. But sympathy should not mean endorsement. A simple thought experiment is in order here. Supposing a future Democratic administration seeks détente with a foreign power of which the US security establishment disapproves, and this kind of “evidence” is produced against the President and his staff. Would the New York Times or the New Yorker give this evidence any credence whatsoever? Would they not in fact be issuing dire warnings against reliance on anonymous, uncorroborated intelligence sources, and against the involvement of the US intelligence services in US domestic politics? The Democrats should remember another old proverb in this regard: Be careful what you wish for – you may get it.
The furore over supposed Russian involvement in US politics forms part of the wider hysteria whipped up since 2014 (but with much older roots) about the supposed Russian threat to the West. That there are problems in the West’s relations with Russia is unquestionable; but the designation of Russian actions in Ukraine as a threat to the West depends on a fundamental error of analysis. The collapse of great empires, whether the British, French, Ottoman or Soviet, invariably leaves disputes and conflicts in its wake. Ukraine, with its huge Russian ethnic minority and deep and ancient ties with Russia, was bound to be an area of such conflict, unless Russia, the West, and Ukraine’s own governments managed matters with exquisite care, restraint and judgment. This we have all failed to do. To say this is not to endorse Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It is only to point out that these actions are about Ukraine, not some fantastical threat to NATO and the EU.
Thus the Baltic States have been presented by much of the Western media and policymakers as likely next victims of Russian media. It is fascinating however in this context to do an internet search for Russian official threats to the Baltic States or Russian actions aimed at provoking internal conflict in the Baltic in recent years. There are none. All that the search turns up are thousands of western (and of course Baltic) articles and interviews stating that such a threat exists. And none of these articles and interviews even pretends to give a credible explanation as to why the Russian government would drive Europe and the USA back together again, and completely destroy pro-Russian political forces in the West, just as these seem to have some chance of success – quite apart from at the very least leading to vastly more damaging anti-Russian economic sanctions, and at the worst risking nuclear war. The alleged motive seems to be some sort of compulsive, psychotic, genetic Russian tendency to conquest. In other contexts, such portrayals might well be called racist.
It is rather striking in this regard that when alleging the Russian threat to the Baltic and Western Europe, some leading Western publications and former security officials have been literally reduced to fiction. Thus an essay (or rather, a short story) by James Kirchick in Foreign Policy describes a future Russian invasion of Estonia and has Putin, as a kind of emperor of Europe, later reviewing a victory parade on Red Square in 2022 (“The Plot Against Europe”, March 6th 2017); and the former British Deputy NATO commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, last year wrote a science fiction novel about Russian invasion of the Baltic States leading to world war (Richard Shirreff, War With Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command, Quercus 2016). Futuristic fiction can of course be wonderful, but as with other exotic literary material, there are special sections of bookstores devoted to it.
Let us however end on a more cheerful note, since Heaven knows under a Trump administration we all need cheering up. The present anti-Russian hysteria has at least provided the basis for some good laughs; and as a former British journalist, I am happy to say that some of the best ones come from the British media. Thus when in October 2016 a Russian naval squadron sailed from its Arctic base to the Mediterranean, even supposedly serious British publications presented the fact that it sailed past Britain as a military threat. The study of Geography in British schools has declined catastrophically in recent years, but even so one might have expected someone to ask what other way there is to get from the Arctic to the Mediterranean by sea. The Suez Canal? Or would the Panama Canal be a shorter route? This formed part of a plethora of articles based on statements and interviews with NATO officials seriously asking if Russian troops could invade Britain. Packed very small in tins of caviar, perhaps, to avoid notice by the US, British and NATO Navies, which outnumber the Russian surface fleet more than 20 times over.
Even better was the story that appeared in the Daily Express tabloid on November 24th 2016, stating that “A killer giant squid that can hypnotise its prey and paralyse humans at a distance of 150 feet using poisonous venom is being developed as a secret weapon by Vladimir Putin, a scientist has claimed.”
In an article for the New York Times on March 9th 2017 that was widely cited in other US publications, Nicholas Kristof “connected the dots” of largely unconnected and unproven “information” supposedly proving Russian manipulation of Trump. Some of these “dots” did not even pretend to do more than reflect Washington establishment prejudices (“Trump has expressed a bewilderingly benign view of Russia”). Others were pure speculation (“We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Donald Trump Jr. was quoted as saying in 2008. Russia may have gained leverage over Trump through loans to his organization or other business dealings.). Others, including the British intelligence “dossier”, are wholly without evidence. Others were gross exaggerations, like the statement that “Trump has appointed officials friendly to Moscow” – something that may have been true of General Flynn but is not true of either Fiona Hill or General H R McMaster, the new National Security Adviser.
It should be remembered that “connecting the dots” in this fashion to create conspiracy theories was a speciality of the old Soviet propaganda machine, and is a tactic of conspiracy theorists (sincere or otherwise) everywhere. This is the sort of “logic” that produces poisonous crackpot theories like the idea that the CIA was responsible for 9/11. Mr Kristof and his colleagues should be very careful about taking US journalism down this road. At the end of it lives a weaponised poisonous giant squid. President Thomas Jefferson once said that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just”. Personally, I tremble for Western journalism when I reflect that God has a sense of humour.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is the author of several books on Russia, the former USSR, and the USA.