There is a great deal of continuity in Russian history from the reign of Peter the Great until the present. There was clear discontinuity during the Bolshevik Revolution and the brief period when V. I. Lenin was in power, but then the USSR reverted to some very traditional practices in domestic and especially foreign affairs. Just as Tsars Peter the Great and Catherine the Great endeavored to modernize the country economically in order to strengthen it militarily so it would be competitive with Western Europe, so did 20th century Soviet leaders use economic modernization as a means of military strength rather than pursuing greater social justice.
Naturally, the system collapsed under its own weight because it became corrupt and inefficient serving the few in the party bureaucracy to the detriment of the many. When Mikhail Gorbachev realized that another modernization attempt entailed scrapping the old Soviet system and its very expensive foreign policy of supporting satellites (spheres of influence), he unleashed a new era of an oligarchic crony capitalist system that the West welcomed as a triumph over the ashes of Communism. Because Russia does not have the tradition of Western European Enlightenment era bourgeois liberal tradition, its political economy was merely another layer upon others already there with more similarities of the Tsarist and Soviet past than with liberal-bourgeois democratic West.
In foreign affairs, Tsarist Russia had been on the defensive throughout the 19th century largely because Western Europe, especially Great Britain and France, had a policy of contained as manifested in the Crimean War (1854-56). At the same time, Tsarist Russia was financially beholden to Western banks and it was as economically dependent on and exploited by the West as Latin America by the US. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the Putin nationalist-authoritarian regime of the early 21st century represent an attempt to assert greater Russian autonomy and lessen dependence on the West while claiming the traditional spheres of influence around their borders. The obstacle to such goals by the Kremlin has been Western imperialist policy as much under the Tsars and Soviet era as in the 21st century under the authoritarian—nationalist capitalist political economy.
Against the historical record of the Russian Empire and the USSR, one can easily understand contemporary Russian foreign policy, especially if we consider that the breakup of the Soviet bloc and ensuing NATO expansion has entailed a much weakened Russian Federation. In the geopolitical arena where Moscow feels the greatest pressure, the policy of encirclement by the US and its European partners is at the core of the renewed East-West confrontation, rather than Russia annexing Crimea (March 2014) and using its role as protector of the ethnic Russian minority in the Ukraine since 2013.
Russia has taken advantage of the relative decline of the US as a superpower at a time that China has been rising as the world’s preeminent economic power invariably siding with Russia not just to preserve the balance of power in Eurasia but also in the Middle East. If China had been on the side on the US and NATO on foreign policy issues impacting everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran and Syria, then Russia would have been substantially weakened in its efforts to insist on preserving or even expanding its historic spheres of influence in Eurasia and the Middle East. The shifting global balance of power from the West to East Asia has actually created power vacuum that Moscow filled, taking advantage of the incalculable contradictions in US foreign policy – in general opposing jihadists, while selectively and indirectly supporting them as in the cases of Libya, Yemen and Syria. These contradictions that entail instability do not serve Chinese interests as the government in Beijing has made abundantly clear as it seeks stability around the world to expand its economic empire. China is hardly interested in strengthening Russia, but only using it as a counterweight of the imperialist West that seeks to destabilize because it sees this course of action as its only option to retain its global supremacy.
Taking advantage of the global destabilizing role of the US and its contradictory foreign policy, Russia took limited risks both with regard to Ukraine and Syria to assert itself as a regional power with rights to spheres of influence. This is at the core of the renewed Russian-American renewed confrontation and the propaganda by both sides over cyber wars. According to US intelligence services, in 2016 Russia without question broke into US Democrat Party computers and manipulated the American people when it came to choosing between presidential candidates in 2016. Although it WIKILEAKS released hacked emails during the last three months of the presidential campaign of 2016, and although Julian Assange denied securing information from the Russians, the US maintained that the source was Russia. For its part, the Kremlin asked for proof that it is behind the hacking, although it hardly concealed its enthusiasm for the defeat of the Democrat Party in the presidential and congressional elections.
Russia’s role in Syria where the US was eliminated as a player in the negotiations of cease-fire and post-civil war plans could be one reason for the Obama administration insisting that the Kremlin was responsible for hacking which no one seriously believes changed the outcome of the presidential or congressional races. After all, the idea that an unemployed auto worker in Ohio voted for the Republican candidate because of Kremlin influence is too absurd to defend even for the most enthusiastic apologist of the renewed Cold War.
Another reason that Russia made a convenient target was the challenge of Obama and the Clintons for control of the Democratic National Committee against those supporting Senator Bernie Sanders fighting for the party’s future. It could also be a naked attempt to weaken the incoming Trump administration that has individuals with close financial ties to Russia and seems more interested in targeting China as the new enemy than Russia. It is also the case that US is so institutionally immersed in anti-Russia propaganda going back to the Wilson administration (Bolshevik Revolution of 1917) that Russia always makes such an easy target. After all, China can only be alienated up to a point because of the immense US dependence on Beijing to buy government bonds and trade.
Moreover, the world economy’s fate is just as dependent, if not more so, on China than on the US. Finally, Russia makes a convenient distraction because of the reality of decline not just in the economy but of the middle class and democracy in a country that preaches freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. If Russia is blamed for all of America’s problems, then there is no need to look at home for root causes for the twilight of bourgeois democracy. Whereas Trump wants to blame jihadists, Mexican illegal workers, China’s supposedly unfair trade practices, and globalization that takes jobs out of the US, the Democrats and establishment Republicans see Russia as a weaker and easier target to demonize.
Did Russia manipulate “American democracy”? On the one hand, there was Trump the billionaire authoritarian charlatan who uses TWITTER obsessively even before taking office just to make his views known on everything from refusal to de-link himself from his business interests to the need for more nuclear weapons and engaging in trade war with China. On the other hand, there was Clinton the Cold War Democrat with a long documented history of corruption and questionable ties to Wall Street and wealthy foreign businesses and governments. She made it clear that she would become president on behalf of ‘identity politics’ rather than class-based politics that Bernie Sanders pursued. No “basket of deplorable” working class stiffs who lack the education and refinement to vote for a Wall Street neoliberal like her need bother voting because the Republican populist Messiah had hypnotized them with promises of making America great again.
Amid such stellar ‘democratic’ choices, both candidates chosen and backed by the elites, the voters were asked to choose between a traditional Cold War neoliberal and an authoritarian populist promising even more tax breaks for the wealthy and more deregulation. Neither candidate was committed to social justice, equality and civil rights. Instead, they debated lifestyle issues as though they are the core concerns of the majority chasing the increasingly costly American Dream. They also debated the role of Russian computer hacking as catalytic to the electoral process, with Trump casting doubt on the legitimacy of the intelligence services as non-political entities, while some Republicans and all Democrats castigating the Kremlin for hacking into US computers.
The Obama administration, the media and well paid analysts became anxious to drive across the point that American democratic society is in sharp contrast to Russian society where authoritarian politics and crony capitalism prevail. Unlike authoritarian crony-capitalist Russia, democratic US has never meddled in foreign elections; it has never tried to overthrow governments using the armed forces, CIA counterinsurgency operations, or any other means ranging from US multinational corporations and US government spending funds to help elect a favorite candidates. Nor has the US ever engaged in foreign surveillance through the NSA and CIA with the intention of manipulation foreign elections. In this oasis of democracy, the aggressive Russian bear, reverting to its previous Communist tactics, dared to disturb the political harmony by pointing out the occasional wart on the otherwise refined façade of the US.
To convince the American people and the world that Russia is the arch enemy of the entire world because it breaks into computers of other countries, in sharp contrast with the non-interference policy of the US that has never dreamed of lowering itself to such practices, various unnamed US intelligence agencies provided news organizations, including the Washington Post, with evidence that Russia hacked the Burlington Electric Company’s main computer which controls the power grid. Of course, the company in Vermont denied that was the case, announcing that a laptop was infected but it was not linked to a mainframe.
At least the corporate media did its duty reporting the information as the government passed on to protect citizens from the Russian menace, even if that information lacked any basis in truth. If there were those still unconvinced of Russia engaging in an act of war by revealing Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails among others, then the US government, corporate media and corporate sponsors have made available well paid analysts, journalists, and “experts” to convince the entire world that they are all in danger of manipulation by Russia. A number of European countries preemptively announced that they too could be targets. In order for world to keep its focus on Russia, here are just some of the activities the US has planned.
- 24/7 News and analysis coverage of “America Held Hostage by Russian Hackers”. Although hard evidence cannot be provided because it is simply too sensitive and will compromise sources, it is the duty of every God-fearing American or citizen of any Western nation to accept everything government and corporate media dish out without requiring empirical proof just as you require no proof that God exists.
- There will be special TV and radio programs of how “The Russians did it and Must be Punished for it”. This special coverage will be repeated ad-nauseam to convince skeptics and Trump supporters that Russia, not the backing of the elements of the corporate media (FOX NEWS), billionaires, and populists frustrated with the establishment elected Trump. We know this to be an incontrovertible fact and we must punish the Commie Russians with more sanctions until there is nothing left to sanction including their fine caviar and vodka.
- TV movie of the week and perhaps a series to follow called “Armageddon: The Showdown with Russia”. This will allow the viewer to realize that the reason for lower middle class and working class living standards has nothing to do with the political economy resulting in capital concentration. No, the real enemy is Russia and that’s why the minimum wage in Omaha is not rising, that’s why housing is unaffordable for about one-third of the population, that’s why college debt is $1.3 trillion, that’s why credit card debt is at $850 billion and auto loans $1.4 trillion. It’s all Russian hacking to blame and it is your patriotic duty to accept it.
- A Sondheim Broadway musical production of: “It’s Springtime for Trump and Putin: Hackers Can’t Fool the CIA and NSA!” If you enjoyed Mel Brooks’ “It’s Springtime for Hitler”, you will simply be enthralled by the Putin-Trump love story with the CIA and NSA just one step behind them singing melodious medleys for Hilary and Obama in “E Flat minor”, as the most comfortable note to sing in for the minority political party.
- “Russian Hackers Must be Destroyed Now!” video game now available with a new app for either your cell phone or laptop. If you enjoy such wonderful games as “Full Spectrum Warrior” “Destroy the World” and others some used to train soldiers, we have a great one that will keep you and the whole family entrained while wanting to kill every Russian until they admit they did the hacking.
- Merchandizing of everything from costumes to bumper stickers reading “Russia did it and we Know it” now available on AMAZON and other online retailers. By displaying this merchandise, you have the opportunity to let your friends, neighbors, and co-workers know how you really feel about that Commie Russia enemy of ours hiding behind Wikileaks, another Commie front organization pretending to do honest journalistic work. Remember part of the proceeds will go to fund the good deeds of the Democratic National Convention against rebel types like Bernie Sanders and the defunct New Deal wing of the party.
- “Anti-Russia Hacking Parades and County Fairs” soon coming to your town or near you. These parades will be featuring not just Cold War Democrats and Republicans but a media circus sponsored by your friendly defense contractor whose patriotism can only be measured by cost overruns for the latest fighter jets. Soon there will be anti-Russian hacking parades at county fairs so people can enjoy shooting a full size doll of Putin while enjoying a corn dog and a Bud. For every successful hit of the Putin doll, the Cold War Democrats and Republicans will score another point with the public proving they are there to protect you from our eternal enemy.
- Comic strips to run in all major newspapers and magazines entitled: “Do your Duty and Report Russian Hackers Near You.” Now the whole family can join in the fun by reporting to the FBI any neighbor or co-worker that doubts Russian hacking, or even a friend or relative that has just become a bit too annoying. This is the chance for all patriotic Americans to prove they are not US intelligence skeptics that is tantamount to being Russian internet trolls.
- For skeptics who insist on hard evidence, CNN and other corporate media giants will make available a video game entitled “Can We Trust the Russians?” This entertaining video game approximates how Russian hacking was actually carried out in the world of virtual reality. Without revealing the identity of any US operatives conducting their own covert operations against “The Enemy”, this video game will convince you once and for all it was our eternal Cold War enemy behind all the calamities that have befallen upon us, including the lead poisoning in Flint Michigan.
- In light of the US insistence that the Kremlin deliberately hacked into US Democratic Party and Podesta’s computers with the aim of undermining American democracy, the US government is announcing the creation of a new agency: “Anti-Russia and anti-Wikileaks Hacking Intelligence Network; aka Putin and Assange Are Undermining our Perfect Society by pointing out our imperfections.” The agency will track our enemies foreign and domestic, and God only knows there are a lot of them. If anyone does not believe us, then Homeland Security will declare them traitors of democracy to be blacklisted and in extreme cases face deportation regardless of their citizenship status.
There are fundamental policy considerations at work that go to the heart of America’s inability to live without demonizing its former Cold War rival. There are ideological, political, geopolitical, economic, cultural and institutional issues involved that demand a continued Russian-American confrontation. Even if there is amelioration of US-Russian relations by the Trump administration, in order to weaken or slow down China’s global ascendancy, the US will find it difficult to let go of its Cold War rival. In a future essay, I will analyze the highly politicized intelligence both rooted in fact and manufactured. There are obvious benefits to the financial and political elites for perpetuating the Cold War paradigm with Russia as the new old enemy and intelligence is only one dimension of this very complex issue. Unless the US decides what limits it needs to place on its own global reach and what perimeters it and its allies must place on Russian spheres of influence, the absurdity of the current policy will continue.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.