Terra Incognita: Fearing Russian bogeyman leads to Western ignorance

The real reason so many on the center-left have bought into the “Russians are coming” nonsense is because they supported the “reset” with Russia in 2009 when Hillary Clinton brought a childish little red button to hang out with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shakes hands with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, April 12, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shakes hands with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, April 12, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Scarcely an hour goes by, let alone a day, without some new Russia story in US media. Not since the 1950s have there been so many stories about Russians hiding in everyone’s closet. Unfortunately all the conspiracy theories, innuendo and simplistic, dogeared accusations are feeding a culture of ignorance and idiocy that won’t help the West confront actual Russian threats or deal with the realities of foreign policy and strategy.
US Senator John McCain tweeted on August 6 that probes into Russian meddling in last year’s US election is about “our country, election system and democracy.” “Russia attacks US democracy” is a common refrain. CNN POLITICS says that the FBI “tracked ‘fake news’ believed to be from Russia on election day.” A common tweet to US President Donald Trump is “you colluded with Russia.”
And it’s not just the US – the all-powerful Russians are everywhere. Journalist Michael Weiss tweeted on August 6 that Russia “is arming the Taliban.” Scott Dworkin, a leader of the Democratic “resistance” tweeted to his nearly 200,000 followers, “Did Russia hack into voting machines and change vote tallies?”
Each of those followers is now stupider for having read that tweet.
Let’s say you believe Russia hacked into voting machines. According to an investigation by The Washington Post, 107,000 votes in three states “effectively decided the election.” So, did Russia hack systems in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? Probably not.
The simplest explanation is, as usual, the best one: America’s unique election system failed Americans. Hillary Clinton won almost three million more popular votes than Donald Trump.
But Americans don’t want to blame America’s system of electing a president, instead media commentators and even senators need there to be Russians everywhere.
I spent three days on the front line in eastern Ukraine over the weekend facing Russian-backed separatists. We sat in the trenches smoking and talking to Ukrainian volunteers facing the Russian bear. They said that on the other side of the line were Russian “mercenaries,” Chechens and Dagestanis, as well as Russian Airborne troops disguised as “Ukrainian separatists” and even Russian special forces. This was all anecdotal – evidence of actual Russian presence came down to peering into the distance, to where Ukrainian soldiers said they had definitely been fighting Russians over the past three years.
Here in Ukraine was an example of a democracy on the Kremlin’s doorstep, not 7,800 km. away. And yet, for all of Russia’s efforts to influence and control the politics of Ukraine, Moscow has failed. Besides annexing Crimea all that Russian President Vladimir Putin has accomplished in Ukraine over the past three years since pro-Western protests on the Maidan in Kiev forced the pro-Russian president to flee is hardening Ukrainian resolve to resist and to lessen economic reliance on Russia.
That, in affect, is also what Putin has “accomplished” in the US. Now more than ever, US politicians are united against Russia. With a vote of 419 to 3 the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent Trump from weakening sanctions on Russia. The same US Congress split mostly along party lines regarding the Iran deal. Iran, an actual enemy of the US that supports terrorism, that has annual “death to America” rallies and is a vicious regime that doesn’t hide its hangings and state-sponsored abuse of women’s rights, is seen as almost tepid compared to the Russians US policy makers fear.
This is why we are stupider for the kinds of conspiracy nonsense spread in media about Russia. The real reason so many on the center-left have bought into the “Russians are coming” nonsense is because they supported the “reset” with Russia in 2009 when Hillary Clinton brought a childish little red button to hang out with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
Russia-watchers warned about the reset, but to no avail. For Obama-Clinton the bad relations with Russia were George Bush’s fault and the US should work with the Russians. How did that go? Russia had just completed a war with its tiny southern neighbor Georgia, supporting breakaway statelets in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But no matter – Obama and Clinton had peered into Putin’s soul, as George W once did, and knew the Russians better than others.
Then came Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in Syria, and Obama scolding the Kremlin like it was a misbehaving child. But the Kremlin was doing what the Kremlin has always done: fight to guard its “near abroad” and to spread its influence and protect its allies. We are asked to believe in insane conspiracies about the Russians, but everything Russia has done under Putin is entirely predictable.
Does it meddle in Moldova and neighboring Transnistria? Yes. According to website “Morning Consult” the “Russian hackers and operatives have attempted to influence elections in Montenegro, the Netherlands and France and conducted cyber-attacks in Germany.”
Perhaps. But did Russia have to resort to hacking to find friends in Berlin? Remember how former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder embraced Putin? In 2014 Der Spiegel warned “Schroder’s Russia ties are bad politics.”
No one “hacked” Schroder, he simply went to embrace Putin, because actually no one needs to hack the West to get its useful idiots to run to Moscow, usually because they oppose some opponent back home.
Part of the bizarre democracy in the West is that people think whatever their opponents do, they have to do the opposite. This works in domestic politics to get votes. Your opponent is for higher taxes, so you oppose them. But in foreign policy it is illogical. Foreign policy should be consistent and slow moving, like an oil tanker. Instead people think that if their predecessor opposed Russian policy, then they should embrace it.
Enter Bush, Obama and Trump. Each has embraced Russia, not because of “hacking” but due to misunderstanding the nature of Moscow’s policy.
Western policymakers, who often make policy based on a mix of Western guilt, obsession with wanting to be “balanced,” appeasing dictators, terrorists and Islamists and selling out local businesses to “get along” with command economies abroad have a hard time understanding a policy like that of Moscow, which tends to be nationalist, pragmatic and consistent. They can’t understand why Moscow simply supports its allies and arms separatist groups, whereas Westerners tend to oppose their allies with “tough love” politics and embrace their enemies.
Do Americans really need Russian-backed “fake news” to be fooled? Don’t they create their own fake news? It’s convenient to blame Russians, when people should be blaming themselves. That doesn’t mean Russia didn’t have its goals with regard to the US elections or that hackers didn’t actually hack the Democrats. They did.
Let’s say you’re very concerned that hackers even got into voting machines. Shouldn’t you be advocating better cyber security then? If Russians are hacking into this stuff doesn’t it stand to reason other actors are hacking in too? The claims that Russia influences Western media and policy is a convenient way to shift attention from other major players, such as Gulf oil states, who spend heavily to acquire media assets, lobbyists and even educational institutions to influence Western policy. Ironically, the Russian meddling is the most obvious, ham handed and out in the open. People are worried Trump’s relatives met with a Russian lawyer or ambassador? Don’t scratch too deep and ask how many sheikhs have made their way from the Gulf to Washington or how many folk from Beijing have had some talks over drinks with Washington insiders.
Russia decided a decade-and-a-half ago it wants to rebuild the influence it lost in 1991. It has succeeded, slowly. It sees NATO and EU tentacles growing closer. It doesn’t have a very good track record trying to reconcile with some of its neighbors, who resent decades of Soviet rule. When it comes to the US though, Russia’s policy isn’t like the policy it pursued in Ukraine. Perhaps the real victory of Russia in the US is to make Americans paranoid and conspiracy-obsessed and cause them to turn on their own government and see Russian meddling and fake news everywhere.
Making America’s foreign policy a basket case, under a weak president, means America can’t carry out policies that might undercut Moscow. Certainly if anyone thought the Russians would work with Trump they were mistaken. Trump is so burdened by allegations of Russia connections, all he can do to prove himself is work against Russia. So either Russia failed massively in its attempt to “secretly” influence US elections, or Russia succeeded, but not in the way media and politicians are telling us. It succeeded by making us all conspiracy believers and fearful of Russians everywhere. A more pragmatic reading of Moscow’s successes and weaknesses and its consistent policy would be of more benefit than a bogeyman.