Is All the Russia Talk Helping Putin? – Politico
Not since the end of the Cold War has the political climate in the United States been so focused on Russia. Suspicions that the president tried to shut down investigations into his campaignâs ties to Moscow could imperil his political future. Russia and the United States are moving toward a confrontation of sorts over Syrian airspace. Almost daily, stories surface about Russian attempts to inject false information into last yearâs political debate, orâfar more unsettlingâto hack into the election software of several states. The Senate, brushing aside the administrationâs objections, voted almost unanimously to impose new sanctions against Russia and to limit Trumpâs ability to soften them. Alliesâ concerns about the presidentâs distance from NATO and his withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord are rooted in the fear that he is providing aid and comfort to Vladimir Putinâs basic goal of splintering the Western alliance.
What unites these disparate events is the belief that Putin, who is well into his second decade as Russiaâs paramount leader, is a figure of near-mythical strength, presiding over the international chessboard with cunning and guile. But if you sit down with two young Russians whose work is analyzing what is happening in the country of their birth, you get a substantially different picture. In their view, Russiaâs attack on the West stems from its growing internal weakness; and the more the West treats Putin as a 10-foot ogre, the better it is for him at home. In that sense, Americaâs new obsession with Russia isnât hurting the Kremlin strongman â itâs helping him.
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Anton Barbashin and Olga Irisova, both 27 tears old, who are co-founders and editors of âIntersection,â an online journal devoted to exploring the links between Russiaâs foreign policy and propaganda efforts at home and abroad. Their work has drawn the attention of Russia watchers in the West, bringing them to the United States for a nationwide speaking tour. Theyâve lived and worked in Warsaw since February of 2014, because it is easier to evade interference (although, Anton says with a smile, âwe havenât had much interference, because weâre not that big â yetâ). What they see in Putinâs aggressive efforts against the West is a direct consequence of real trouble at home.
Russiaâs domestic economy, Olga says, has been hit by two blows: the sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the falling price of energy. The countryâs gross dometic product, she notes, has dropped from $2.3 trillion to $1.3 trillion in three years. Itâs now barely higher than that of Italy. Cash reserves have dropped from $86 billion to $17 billion, and may be nearing exhaustion by yearâs end. Protests â including a significant truckersâ strike, have grown, but news of such discord is essentially blacked out on Russian media.
What is covered â massively â is news about the West, and especially from America.
âIf you watch Russian TV on any given day, â says Anton, 70 percent of it is global affairs, much from the U.S. âYouâd think you live in the U.S., thereâs so much coverage,â he says. And, since relatively few Russians travel abroad, âthe coverage has credibility â which is not true about domestic affairs. And that coverage is devoted to a single theme: The model of Western liberal democracy is broken.â
Unlike the Stalinist days, Russian TV does not offer endless celebrations of a workersâ paradise. The message now is more subtle.
âThe propaganda,â Anton says, is that âweâre not perfect, weâre flawed, but the West is no better.â In fact, he argues, the flood of disinformation during the U.S. presidential election was built around the idea that, since Hillary Clinton was going to win, and since she represented a much tougher approach to Moscow than Trump, it was important to undermine any claims about the moral superiority of a Clinton-led America.
âFrom everything we know,â Anton says, âthe whole Kremlin strategy was that she was gong to win, but letâs use this opportunity to show that the U.S. is broken, that thereâs no real democracy there, that she won by cheating Bernie Sanders, that Trump was going to make it easier to work with Russia, but the establishment didnât let her win.â In that sense, they argue, Trumpâs victory was a priceless gift to the Kremlin.
And so, in a sense, is the growing concern in the U.S. that Russia may actually have helped determine the outcome of the election. For a nation whose people, and leadership, is still obsessed with the loss of the Soviet empire, thereâs comfort in the idea that Russia is a dangerously powerful political force.
âWhen they see U.S. officials commenting so much on Russian influence, itâs almost flattering,â says Anton. âItâs like the people are hearing, âOK, you donât have incomes, health care, good homes, but you do have a powerful leader.ââ
When it comes to Russiaâs political future, Anton and Olga have little optimism about the short term. The experience of a clumsy stumble into democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union remains, for many Russians, a cautionary tale, with politically connected insiders swiftly gobbling up state-run enterprises, while the average Russian saw a tangible drop in living standards. That privation helped spark a blossoming of nostalgia for âthe good old daysâ of firm leadership; even Stalin is remembered by many Russians with affection.
âIn 1991,â says Olga, âwe had a very flawed democracy and it was a hardship for the majority, so when Russians think âdemocracyâ they think, âhardship, instability. âLiberalâ is almost a dirty word.
âBut if you ask them what changes they want, youâll hear responses about a democratic state. They want to have rights, property protected, opportunities presented. They want to be ânormalâ in a sense. But when you call it âdemocracyâ, they say, âWell, we want something else.ââ
Anton is even more pessimistic. âThe only way to fix what is wrong is if Russia will collapse, economically and socially. the majority has to see how bad things are, and the only way for that to happen is for Russia to suffer. What Russia needs is essentially what Germany had after World War II. But without occupation,â he hastily adds.
In the nearly 50 years between the onset of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was challenged to find a posture toward Moscow that recognized both the threat and the limits of Soviet power. That meant resisting expansionist moves in Western Europe, acknowledging Soviet spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, and above all embracing the wisdom of experts like George Kennan, who reminded policymakers to understand the inherent weakness of the Soviet Union and use it to the Westâs advantage.
Today, with a U.S. president who at times seems determined to act as Putinâs (presumably) unwitting ally, itâs imperative for Trumpâs foreign policy team, and for Congress, to pursue a set of policies that recognizes the reality of what Russia represents today: an adversary out to undermine an allied West and erode its faith in democratic norms, but an foe highly vulnerable to effective economic responses to its malevolent assaults. The counsel of these two young Russians should be greeted with the respect and rapt attention of their elders.