Consider two sets of facts.
Here’s the first: Recently, on British soil, agents of the Russian state probably assassinated an ex spy of theirs using a chemical weapon. Russia may have worked with WikiLeaks to release information embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, either with the goal of weakening her as president, or helping to elect Donald Trump. In 2014, Russia annexed a portion of Crimea; it was the first time the Russian state had expanded its territory of rule since the end of the Cold War. Russian-supplied militants in Ukraine used anti-aircraft weaponry to down a passenger airliner. Russia makes special deals with American enemies, such as Iran. Russia made itself a player again in the Middle East, by intervening in Syria, when America couldn’t commit itself to removing Bashar al-Assad. It provides safe refuge for Edward Snowden, who is wanted for stealing American secrets. Russian banks lend to disruptive political parties in the Western world, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Russia suppresses political dissent within Russia through both legal and extra-legal measures, from preventing ballot access to killing journalists. Its military conducts provocative exercises along the borders of NATO countries.
Here’s the second: Russia withdrew peacefully from 700,000 square miles of Europe and Eurasia at the end of the Cold War. Boris Yeltsin’s government, claiming to act on the advice of Western policymakers who counseled “shock therapy,” sold the assets of the Russian economy to a series of Communist apparatchiks and gangsters. This was deeply unpopular in Russia but his reelection was secured by direct American meddling, including “emergency infusions” of billions of dollars of Western money, a phalanx of American political consultants, and a play-scripted “confrontation” with Bill Clinton. Under Yeltsin’s rule, economic and social trends culminated in a major decrease in Russian life expectancy. George W. Bush empowered revolutions in the former Soviet sphere. His administration empowered men, such as Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, who proceeded to make war on Russia. During just President Obama’s second term, the United States backed a putsch in Ukraine and a series of Islamist-tinged rebels in Syria, two countries that happen to host major Russian naval installations. In both these cases, Russia intervened militarily.
What story do you tell from the above facts? Is Russia weak or is it gathering confidence and strength? Is it contained by strong Western policymaking? Or is it encircled by hysterical and easily terrified Western powers? Is Putin playing a bad geopolitical hand brilliantly? Or is he desperately maneuvering to cover over faults and mistakes?
America’s political actors seem to shift their views easily. When Mitt Romney said in 2012 that Russia was America’s “top geopolitical foe,” President Obama snapped back, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Liberals cheered.
But two years later, Russia passed a law proscribing homosexual propaganda aimed at youth. The state arrested the punk-rock band Pussy Riot for protesting on the altar of a cathedral. Suddenly, for American liberals, Russia began to become a foreign proxy for their own domestic culture wars. Obama sent gay athletes in the American delegation to the Sochi Olympics. Pussy Riot was feted as heroic.
What troubles us? It can’t be that we are upset at Russian violations of human rights at home; that doesn’t trouble anyone who approves America’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia. It can’t be that we really fear it as a long-term rival for power. Russia shrinks, China grows. So what is it?
In elite policymaking circles, in the well-lit rooms lined with free bottles of spring water, where people grandly refer to themselves as “Atlanticists,” Russia isn’t spoken about as if it were a nation with its own history, impelling national interests, and problems. Instead, both privately and publicly, it is spoken of like a ghost written into the Western storyline. It haunts the West. It is the motor behind every unwelcome political development. It is blamed for the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, even if he was the product of Atlanticist institutions. People blame Russia for the rise of a populist nationalist party in Poland, even if that party is led by a man who believes Putin killed his brother.
Some day we might learn again that Russia is simply a nation-state with its own enduring interests.
Russia functions as symbol of Western self-doubt, in all its varieties. Western populists doubt that their leadership class has their interests at heart, and they imagine that Putin stands up for his country. Some in the Western political class doubt that their post–Cold War program of ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people could ever come to ruin. And so they believe its apparent rejection in the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump must be the product of Russian machinations.
For others the doubts are darker. The post-war program lately produces more economic dislocation than they expected and more political turmoil than they can stomach. It also produces hypocrisy. Russians are expected to swallow the corruption of Yeltsin being foisted on them. But Western elites can’t even handle a few Facebook memes.
In some of those rooms of Atlanticists, there is a little guilt, too. Don’t the financial institutions in the city of London depend on the fortunes of Russian oligarchs? So too the personal wealth of our elites is partly reflected in the inflated real-estate prices of London, New York, and Paris, which depend on those Russians who buy it up and visit once every few months, if ever. Some of the children of America’s elite go to private school with these young Russian resource-heirs, the ones whose families were enriched by shock therapy.
Some day we might learn again that Russia is simply a nation-state with its own enduring interests. We may one day accept, or at least understand, that its ugly political culture is informed by an unhappy history and unlucky geography. We may even recognize our own blunders in our relationship. Right now we are too wrapped up in our own factional domestic disputes, and too haunted by our own feeling that we lack leadership and policy wisdom, our own fear that we lack the will to maintain our way of life or the ability to change it.
But I’m not sure I long for that day. Self-knowledge of this type is usually only given to us through unspeakable tragedy. The day Russian conspiracy theories no longer amuse or soothe us will be a day when nothing can or will.