For many years, it has been a standard trope of liberal writing on hostilities between nations and ethnicities that these are not rooted either in inherited conflicts or real contemporary clashes of interest but are rather “constructed” by wicked political elites to serve their own political and economic ends.
This is an argument that has often been used to “explain” the foreign policy stances of the Putin administration, with the implication that these policies are not merely not in Russia’s real interests, they are not even intended to be, and that President Putin and his followers are acting purely in their own selfish and cynical interest by diverting the attention of the Russian people away from demands for domestic reform. This in turn provides yet another excuse for Western governments to take action against Russia while ignoring Russian wishes.
I have therefore to note with a rather bitter amusement that it high time for Western analysts who argue this to take a good look in a mirror. For it is in fact Western elites in their talk of a “new cold war” with Russia which provide the best example of such a strategy in recent times. Equally, however, this case also demonstrates that rather than a conscious and cold-blooded process, this kind of strategy can often be at least partially unconscious, and that rather than the product of some controlling intelligence, it comes from innumerable individual choices among politicians, policymakers, journalists and analysts. Today, any aspiring hack politician or journalist can improve their chances of gaining attention by taking a hard line against Russia or revealing some new piece of “information” about Russia’s nefarious activities. This is a reciprocal activity. These people feed the miasmic cloud that now befogs thinking about Russia in the West, but they also feed off it.
That Russia is in certain respects acting against perceived Western interests is obvious (as in Ukraine), but so too is the fact that in other respects Russia has been aligned with many Western countries, or where it has differed with them, has subsequently been proved right even from the West’s own point of view. Thus Russia sided with Germany and France in opposing the US invasion of Iraq, and they have been proved correct by history. Russia opposed the USA, Britain and France in their campaign to overthrow Ghaddafi, and has also been proved correct. Russia is aligned with Britain, France, Germany and the EU in supporting the Iran nuclear deal. Russia is allied with all the Western powers against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. Russia and the West appear to differ in their attitudes to the Syrian conflict but in fact do so a great deal less than is generally reported, if only because the USA and the West in general have no actual plan for how to replace the Baath regime.
And while Russia may have engaged in minor covert attempts to influence the US electoral process, there is no Russian plan to lead worldwide revolution.
Moreover, there is a strong element of theatre about the supposed risk of war between Russia and the West – even after the latest alarming twist by the Trump administration in its threat to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. After all the promises from Washington, the USA did not go to war to defend Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014. On the other hand, as President Putin has pointed out, Russia did not invade and occupy large areas of Ukraine when there was almost nothing to oppose it militarily. Nor did Russia march into Tbilisi in 2008. Both sides therefore have been much more cautious than either the propaganda of the other side or their own rhetoric might suggest.
One could almost say that an unstated rule has been established, whereby the West will not defend anywhere that Russia might actually attack, and Russia will not attack anywhere that the West might conceivably defend. Certainly NATO military spending and deployments do not remotely match what would be happening if NATO governments seriously expected a Russian attack. Certain Western statements might indeed be described not just as theatre but as theatre of the absurd – like the Swedish government’s messages to its people to prepare for resistance in the event of a Russian invasion. Of one thing we can be sure given Swedish history over the past century: If the Swedes were seriously afraid of Russian attack, they would be talking in – shall we be polite and say more accommodating terms?
Finally, if one were looking for a global peer competitor of the USA, economically and ideologically as well as strategically, China is a vastly more formidable one than Russia. As to Russian attempts to influence the US elections, a glance at the figures involved demonstrates beyond doubt that this was on a very limited scale compared to the immense volume of material on the internet related to the election campaign.
Why then the current Western hysteria? Of course, as with all national hostilities, this builds to some extent on older foundations: the Cold War, around which western security institutions and western ideological propaganda were organised for two generations, and which created NATO itself; and the much older national hatred for Russia (sometimes of course justified) on the part of Poles, Balts, Jews and some Ukrainians.
The drivers of this crisis are economic insecurity and job losses driven by automation and computerisation, growing social inequality driven by these factors plus financialisation of economies, and demographic and cultural fears driven by mass migration. There seems no reason at all why all of these factors will not intensify in the years and decades to come, thereby intensifying the crisis of liberal democracy; and that is even before the looming menace of climate change begins to kick in. The existing Western elites (and even the conservative ones are liberals in economic terms, and often in cultural terms too) have no real idea of how to meet these challenges – understandably, since this would require abandoning or heavily modifying some of their most cherished beliefs.
As Bernie Sanders said in the wake of Trump’s election, when the accusations against Russia first surfaced, this was not the discussion the Democratic Party needed to have with itself. What it needed to discuss was how it had come to lose so many millions of traditional working class Democratic voters to a fraudulent populist like Trump. This however is a discussion that the Democratic establishment is desperately anxious not to hold – because the answer might be that they need to choose policies like Sanders, not those of Hillary Clinton. And as far as NATO is concerned, it is of course extremely anxious not to have to think about the fact that every one of its members’ military adventures in the Muslim world over the past 17 years has turned out disastrously.
How very fortunate then that the Russian threat is around to provide a welcome distraction. This does not seem to me however purely a political ploy directed at Western electorates – although this is clearly the case with the Democrats’ attempts to bring down Trump via his alleged links to Russian interference in the elections. Rather, the Western elites are trying to distract themselves from the deeply painful dilemmas now facing them.
One can understand this in human as well as political terms. Which of us in our personal lives, faced with the need to make a really painful decision about something, have not sometimes decided that the really important and urgent thing to do is to paint the kitchen or wash the car? How much more so, of course, if we happen to work for an institution which has been painting kitchens and washing cars for the last three generations. So up to a point, one can sympathise with them over this – up to a very limited point. For the threat of war has been as I have suggested greatly exaggerated; but playing around with nuclear threats as the Trump administration is now doing is still a rather more serious business than painting your kitchen, and the risk of accidents carries rather more serious consequences than falling off a ladder.