Once upon a time (that was actually a few days ago at S. Beach), I was reading a Russia book in public. It was Yuri Girenko’s Before and After Putin. Perhaps I should’ve been wiser and left the book at my rental home, or brought A Game of Thrones with me instead, but as it were, a passerby saw me reading it and stopped to “chat” with me. I say “chat” rather than chat, because my exchange with the good citizen of S. Beach was brief and one-sided:
Man: What are you reading?
Me: A book called ‘Before and After Putin’.
Man: You know, he’s going to be the next Hitler! Have you heard how Russia is trying to decide our elections?
Me (softly): Duly noted. (I return to reading. Having imparted his message, the passerby continues on his merry way.)
Hmm. That was strange. Not because of the conversation itself – people have stopped and talked with me about my reading before. It was that part about Russia messing with the election – that was new. At first I thought the man was jesting with me, but I realized he actually looked concerned. What was going on? For the next few days, I got to thinking about our conversation (because I tend to think too hard about many things.) Eventually I realized the incident might’ve just been an example of a wider phenomenon I shall call ‘Putin Panic’.
Allow me to break form for a minute, climb up on a dusty old soapbox and share my thoughts.
America’s Putin Panic is friggin’ ridiculous.
If you are no stranger to the constant stream of Russia-related somethings from the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and The Guardian, then you likely already know the current Russian leadership is a very, very paranoid bunch. The Russian powers that be, every one of them down to the Big Man himself, see the hand of the United States in every international and internal event that has a negative outcome for Russia. Officials blame the anti-Putin protests that erupted in Moscow 2011-12 on outside interference. They believe the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 was orchestrated by the CIA. And instead of trying to actively combat corruption or prevent further economic stagnation, the Russian government finds it easier to blame the United States for Russia’s domestic hardship. Russian politics is in terrible shape, not just because of its authoritarian nature, but because of the conspiracy theories on which it too often relies.
At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Some of us like to mock Those Silly Russians and their paranoia, confident in our own ability as a pluralist democracy to avoid the influence of such conspiracy theories. Yet for all our talk of how mired the Kremlin is in its own delusions, that same type of conspiratorial thinking that plagues Russia pervades the West as well. Pundits see Putin and Russia behind everything from Brexit and the rise of right-wing parties in Europe to the rise of Donald Trump in America. And now America’s election has become about running against Putin and the evil Russians.
All this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t question whether Russia has anything to gain from supposedly* backing Trump, or that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a right to express concern over potential Russian interference in the DNC. But here’s the thing: even given the scant (and in some cases nonexistent) evidence to support those two allegations, our minds – and the minds of our media – jumped straight to “Putin did it.” And it requires an astonishing level of hyperbole to believe that Russian interference would actually decide our election, or that Russia would even try to.
So, serious Western politicians, news media outlets and analysts are eager to blame Putin, the machinations of the FSB or the power of Russian propaganda for a lot of things. More news at 11, right? But what’s truly disturbing about this stance is that we’re not just blaming Putin for things in areas of Russia’s direct involvement (ex. Syria, Ukraine), but for the problems within our own democracies. Brexit didn’t happen simply because Putin wanted to fracture Europe, but because of tensions and contradictions in the UK itself; and Donald Trump didn’t rise because of Russian backing, but because his ideas resonated with a particular disillusioned, racist, conservative – and until now, silent – segment of American society. Casting blame in Russia’s direction prevents us from productively discussing the problems we face as societies by placing responsibility for our shortcomings on an external actor. It simplistically reduces the uncertainties of living in an increasingly interdependent world to Great Power rivalry. And, most importantly for this student, it doesn’t help us understand Russia or its government, nor does it make it easier for us to formulate better policy towards Russia.
It’s also worth mentioning that at a time when the average American is more concerned about terrorism, migration, and job loss than Russia, relying upon scare tactics which should’ve died out in the fifties is not exactly a wise electoral strategy.
America’s Putin Panic is unhelpful, untruthful, and in such a complicated world, unacceptable.
*I personally think Russian backing is highly unlikely.