I’ve tried and failed to find a silver lining to the durability of the narrative of Donald Trump as a (possibly unwitting) agent of Vladimir Putin. Aside from being patently ridiculous, as outlined in great detail by Masha Gessen in the NYB, its an unwelcome distraction from a much-needed national conversation on how American politics produced a racist, xenophobic, barely coherent rage-monster capable of securing a bare minimum of 40 percent of the popular vote.
As an optimist, I’m hopeful we’ll at least start that conversation by the end of the year. One we clearly will not have is why a contingent of well-heeled Russia-focused academics and high-profile foreign policy commentators latched on to the story with such ferocity.
Led by Anne Applebaum — whose Twitter feed gives the impression she’s willing to stake her career on this — the Trump/Putin contingent is bringing to the general public a longstanding divide in the American foreign policy community about Russia and the former communist world.
Americans are getting a taste of what it’s like to disagree with so-called Russia hawks — who also include Josh Rogin, Eli Lake, Michael Weiss, and academics like Johns Hopkins’ Svante Cornell — on issues of Putin’s involvement in, well, literally anything. In the world of the Russia hawk, all is black and white, every question is a moral one, and they’re always on thh right side. Putin is the eternal bogeyman, and his hand can be seen in every negative social or political development in locales as varied as Warsaw, Tbilisi, Budapest, and Bratislava.
I don’t want to drag this down with a laundry list of examples, so we’ll limit ourselves to one example of how this discourse functions. I tried to picked the least politically-charged example I could find (at least from an American and European perspective), which was April’s hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the Wall Street Journal, Svante Cornell argued that Russia — which was not a part of the fighting and has since worked to deescalate tensions — instigated the violence out of a desire to destabilize the region. Cornell, and apparently the editors of the WSJ, felt this fact was clear enough to not require explication, despite the fact that, to put it bluntly, this did not happen and no available evidence supports it. Fun!
In other writings, Cornell has accused Russia of fomenting the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a claim he also does not feel requires textual support, and one I am not aware any historian or reputable analyst has ever made.* His argument, in sum, is that Russia views the world as a zero-sum game (he curiously uses the term “Leninist zero-sum game,” which may or may not be different than a traditional zero-sum game, but it isn’t immediately clear) and therefore seeks to thwart America and its allies at every turn.
His policy prescription? To treat all interactions with Russia as a zero-sum game, and to thwart them at every turn, preferably, one assumes, before they thwart us thwarting them.
This is comforting, tidy, internally consistent, and of course, largely insane, and the obvious endpoint of Cornell’s argument is war with Russia. I will permit the reader to disagree, but I generally prefer policy prescriptions that do not inevitably lead to pointless death and destruction. But I digress.
The key plank of Cornell’s argument, which is echoed, explicitly or implicitly, throughout Russia hawk analysis, is that Putin is the West’s self-styled bete noire. The Putin of the Russia hawk’s imagination is not only incapable of compromise, but also acts solely out of malice for the West, like some real-life variation on the typical Star Trek villain.
I’ll stop here to acknowledge that this may in fact be the case, but it is beside the point for the sake of this article. Anti-American authoritarians are a dime a dozen, and the Kremlin is opaque enough to support an almost limitless number of interpretations, for those with the time and the inclination.
What is relevant is this perspective argues that not only is the Kremlin dedicated to opposing perceived American foreign policy aims above all else, but that it possesses almost mythical capabilities to do so. If Putin wasn’t capable of manipulating the internal politics of countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Armenia, and Ukraine on a whim, his attitude towards the West wouldn’t matter. In other words, how many seventy-one page deconstructions of North Korean propaganda have you read lately?
This analysis views Russia-adjacent events through a reductive filter where the slightest evidence pointing to Russian interference outweighs any amount of evidence to the contrary. Growing far-right movements in Europe become not the result of numerous, complicated domestic and international trends, but of Russian hybrid warfare. Deaths on the Armenian and Azeri line of contact aren’t the logical consequence of decades of toxic domestic fear-mongering and unchecked nationalism, but of Russian instigation. Donald Trump isn’t the inevitable fat, orange baby of decades of Republican dogwhistling, but the result of Russian interference in American elections.
In all likelihood, and much to benefit of the collective sanity of the world at large, the Trump/Putin plot will be a passing sideshow pushed out of the headlines when Trump inevitably tops himself again in the coming weeks, possibly by eating a whole goose on live television, or by immuring Paul Ryan beneath Trump Tower (WE CAN DREAM).
But we’ll still have to deal with discourse that produced the sideshow. We’ll have to address why US and EU agencies still focus valuable resources on combatting Russian propaganda abroad, despite a glaring lack of evidence that it works or that anyone watches it. Those efforts might be put to better use combatting very real and very serious threats to freedom of information in the region, including Ilham Aliyev’s efforts to destroy Azerbaijan’s remaining free press or Law and Justice’s takeover of state broadcasters in Poland.
Applebaum, Cornell, and their ilk are right in their warnings that democracy (at least for our generation) is at risk — an unvarnished fascist has never been closer to the American presidency, for fuck’s sake — but if we look to Moscow as the source of all the ails to world, we’ve lost before we’ve even begun.
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*I was actually so thrown by this claim I went back and skimmed through Thomas de Waal’s Black Garden, the best work on the conflict, to try to figure out what the hell Cornell is talking about, but I came up empty. This would be less distressing if he wasn’t the head of the Caucasus and Central Asia department at America’s premiere international studies school.