The current state of relations between Russia and the West is not a cold war, or at least not the Cold War 2.0. However, it is certainly characterized by a similar profound and willful unwillingness on both sides not only to refuse to listen to the other’s arguments, but even to admit that any such arguments could exist.
The Russians are rather more crude in their approach, leaping to label everything they don’t like to hear as “Russophobia”. Sometimes, this means hostile statements, such as Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Breedlove’s regular insistence on the existential threat posed by the Russian bear. Indeed, more broadly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed to spy a “fashion of Russophobia in certain [European] capitals”, presumably because they don’t want to roll over and condone Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine.
However, it also applies as commonly these days to everything from drama events to children’s books. The Ministry of Culture attacked the Golden Mask theatre festival as “systematically supporting performances that evidently contradict moral norms, provoke our society and contain the elements of Russophobia,” for example, while the book “Flags of the World” found itself withdrawn from the shops because a parliamentarian labeled its – entirely factual – mention that Lithuania sought independence from Russian rule as “Russophobic”.
This clumsy equation of honest critique and non-conformity with out-and-out hatred of Russia and all things Russian is a pernicious and dangerous notion. It is used to marginalize and persecute independent voices, dumb down debate, and support the mythological notion of a Russia alone and besieged in a hostile world. (Frankly, the slew of American generals regularly characterizing Russia in hysterical terms as a terrible threat to the United States are in so many ways RT’s best friends, and deserve at least a few medals from Putin in return.)
In the West, though, there is a more subtle but in some ways more problematic approach, which sees Russia’s malevolent machinations behind every reversal and engagement. The most obvious example of this is the “weaponization” meme. It seems that anything and everything is being “weaponized” by the Kremlin.
For example that reliable bellwether of Moscow-baiting hyperbole General Breedlove has asserted, and many have dutifully echoed, that Russia is “weaponizing” Syria’s refugees, deliberately fomenting migration to put pressure on Europe. Apart from the fact that there seems no evidence that this is the case (it always ultimately seems to come from conveniently-unnamed “intelligence sources”), the refugee crisis started well before Russia’s involvement. To be sure, Moscow gains some advantage from it, and its heavy-handed approach to warfare was hardly calculated to dissuade the citizens of war zones such as Aleppo from fleeing, but that is not the same as strategy.
In this vein, everything from the rise of anti-federalist nationalists in Europe to Russia’s attempts to make itself less dependent on Western sources of finance is perceived through the distorting lens of “weaponization”.
It somehow casts the Russians as intrinsically the bad guys. Of course, Moscow does do more than its share of bad things, from annexing Crimea to turning a blind eye to assassinations and corruption at home. But these are largely the products of statecraft, not sinfulness. We do not have to accept the validity of the Russian worldview to accept that it has its own logic, and is also rooted in a belief – not always totally incorrect – that the West has let it down and wants to prevent Moscow from attaining what Vladimir Putin regards as its rightful global stature.
More importantly, it reflects and encourages poor analysis. One of the reasons why the “weaponization” meme is so powerful and attractive is precisely because it does reflect the way the world is turning. As direct military conflict becomes less and less sustainable – it is worth remembering that even in the Donbas, Moscow has held back from a full-out military assault – then there is more and more scope for alternatively forms of warfighting. The West’s economic sanctions are a prime example of “weaponizing finance”, while instruments from cyber-attacks to propaganda campaigns also represent alternatives to tanks and guns.
The military thinker Clausewitz characterized war as politics by other means. In the modern world almost anything becomes other means for war.
Confusing cause and effect
Russia does seek to use its alternative instruments to influence Western policy (as does everyone else), so there is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in the “weaponization” line – just as there is in the “Russophobia” one. However, the problem is when cause and effect get confused.
There is, for instance, very little evidence that Russia’s eager encouragement of European ultra-nationalists has had any real impact on their rise. Rather, they reflect a malaise within Europe: doubts about the legitimacy of the Union, fears about cultural homogenization and uncontrolled migration, nostalgic myths about “good old days” that never were. It is convenient for the West to blame Russian conspiracies because it absolves us from having to take a sharper, harder and more self-critical look at where we have failed.
This is perhaps one of the most striking dividing lines between Russia and the West. Frankly, it is hard to sustain any great hope that this Kremlin is going to be honest with itself, its people or its neighbours. It has lost its mooring in reality, gone too far in cocooning itself in a fictional narrative of malign threats from without and ungrateful plots from within. Instead, it luxuriates in its own world of infinitely malleable fictions.
The West rightly aspires to higher standards. Meaningful democracy is dependent on an informed public debate; this also helps raise the level of policy formulation. The debasement of much public discussion of Russia does us a disservice, and helps explain why Western policy towards Moscow has so often been counter-productively belligerent and absent of nuance.
The current situation is good for propagandists and arms dealers, for those who would demonize their rivals, and those looking for easy answers. (And, in fairness, for itinerant Russia-watchers like me.) It’s not good for Russia, nor for the West, though.
It is easy simply to inveigh against the situation, the way that both Russia and the West are more interested in asserting their own position (and virtue) than engaging with the other’s. The important question is what can be done.
There’s the rub. Realistically, it is unlikely that there will be any change from the Kremlin. Rather, it will have to be the West that instead starts to wean itself off the addictive temptations of caricature. Not to be the bigger party (though it will be), not on the condition that Russia follow suit (it won’t), but because better policy comes from better understanding – and also this will deprive the Kremlin of some of the best material for its own paranoid propaganda.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.