The more Russia is viewed as the “global villain” the more pressure the West will face to ratchet up its policy responses to perceived Russian aggression. At what point, though, will both sides run out of any good options?
Today for Russia, it is very difficult to allay Western suspicions and rollback economic sanctions, and that’s leading to some pretty erratic responses from the Kremlin. Photo: AP
Ever since the escalation of the Ukraine crisis in March, the “Blame Russia” campaign has been in overdrive. It’s not just that the West blames Russia for the escalating crisis in Ukraine, it’s that the West blames Russia for practically anything that goes wrong in the world. That relentless attempt to portray Russia as the global villain, however, could backfire.
Here’s how the “Blame Russia” game works - pick any bad news in the world and immediately try to find a nefarious Russian connection behind it. Bonus points if this “nefarious Russian connection” involves Vladimir Putin, the Russian intelligence services (e.g. the FSB, successor to the KGB), evil Russian hackers, or wacky Russian nationalists. In recent weeks, Russia has been blamed (at least indirectly) for the outbreak of the Ebola virus, for the tragic explosion of a U.S. space rocket, and even for the escalating cost of hosting the Winter Olympics.
However, the “Blame Russia” strategy might force the West into disastrous policy moves that could end up hurting it as well. The reason is that the illogic of the “Blame Russia” game has been pushed to such a point that it’s led to a very real paranoia of Russia – and that forces the hand of Western governments. The more that Russia is presented as the unruly bear migrating away from its native taiga, the more that Western governments have to act to preserve their own reputations.
There are now three very concrete examples of how the West’s “Blame Russia” strategy is leading to some very ill advised steps by Western governments.
The first example was economic sanctions. We know from historical experience that a “sanctions war” (as they refer to it in Russia) is only going to lead to a race to the economic bottom. You ban their financial assets, and they ban your fruits and vegetables. You try to sink the Russian ruble, and they come up with a “de-dollarization” plan for the global economy. You cut off their credit, and they cut off your gas.
The second example is the new call for a military buildup by NATO, driven by fears that Russia will make land grabs in the Baltic region, or in Scandinavia, in Moldova, elsewhere in Ukraine or just about anywhere in the post-Soviet space. Yellow submarines spotted off the coast of Sweden? They must be Russian nuclear subs preparing for a surprise strike on Scandinavia. More “little green men” spotted in Ukraine? They must be planning to carve a land bridge through Ukraine, from Russia to Crimea. Now George Soros is calling on European nations to “wake up” and wreck their own economies with a multi-billion-dollar military buildup to counter recent moves by Russia in Europe. Soros says Russia now poses an “existential threat” to Russia.
The third example is the West refusing to coordinate counter-terrorism responses with Russia on ISIS, even as jihadist extremism shows signs of coming to the U.S. and Canada. The West has always treated terrorism differently when it happened in Russia – Beslan was initially viewed by the West as Russia’s 9/11 – and that has led to a policy blind spot now that events in Iraq and Syria have spiraled out of control. Soon it may be too late for anyone to do something about jihadist extremism in the Middle East.
And you can already see the next policy steps that the West will be forced to make, now that Russia has been cast as the “global villain.” In areas ranging from space exploration to nuclear nonproliferation, there is no longer any political will to find any common ground with Russia. Now that the Republicans have regained control of the U.S. Congress after big midterm wins on Nov. 4, destructive political moves – such as providing lethal, military assistance to Ukraine – might actually have a chance of passing, with or without Barack Obama’s consent.
In a world divided into two armed camps, a “Blame Russia” strategy might have worked. But in a world that’s globalized, fast and flat, a country like Russia has options. Moreover, when actions used to punish Russia (such as financial sanctions) don’t work as planned, it only produces the image of a “shrinking hegemon” forced to ratchet up its policy response out of reputational needs. In other words, the West has to start matching deeds to rhetoric - otherwise it looks weak.
Complicating matters is that Russia now feels that it has been boxed into a corner. Today for Russia, it is very difficult to allay Western suspicions and rollback economic sanctions, and that’s leading to some pretty erratic responses from the Kremlin. Having Russian fighter planes and bombers buzz Europe is probably not the best way to quell any growing paranoia in the West.
The race to the bottom intensifies the more the blame piles up, but don't tell that to the mainstream Western media. The job of 21st century journalism is the same as the job of 19th century journalism -- sell newspapers and magazines. The way to do that is by placing an unsmiling Vladimir Putin with dark sunglasses on the cover – the classic Hollywood bad guy, the “pariah,” the evil genius with his hands on the nuclear button, capable of acting everywhere and nowhere at once.
Unfortunately for the West, this story may not end like the classic Hollywood blockbuster, with the villain vanquished, the world saved, and the heroes embracing against the backdrop of a rising sun. This may end up being more of a neo-noir thriller, with complicated plot twists, strange characters acting erratically, and a final ending that satisfies nobody.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.