Russia Isn’t Behind Everything
A popular protest movement, typified by the ‘yellow vests’ worn by protestors, has spread through France like wildfire over the last three weeks. While plans for a fuel tax that would have disproportionately affected working and middle-class people were the straw that broke the camel’s back, the protests are about much more than just one simple tax. They reflect a wider discontent with the austerity policies promoted by the unabashedly neoliberal Macron government that has shown open contempt for working people. As life becomes more and more difficult and standards of living fall for the majority, it’s only natural that, eventually, this would manifest in a visible way — especially in France, with its well-known appetite for protest.
But many want to sell a different narrative, one that’s rapidly pervaded politics over the last two years: that it’s all due to Russian interference. Apparently, everyone would be happy with Macron’s presidency if not for a whopping 1,600 tweets posted from Russian IP addresses among the tens of millions posted every day. Who knew?
Those who support the current neoliberal status the world over have taken to blaming Russia for anything and everything that’s inconvenient to their dominance. Often, this scapegoating comes with ludicrous attempts to draw a line of continuity from the Cold War by dishonestly associating today’s hypercapitalist Russia with the USSR. This has been a propaganda coup that’s done wonders at drawing people’s attention away from the neoliberal roots of many of the most pertinent issues facing the world today. Advocates for the established order have gaslighted themselves into believing don’t need to engage in any self-reflection, nor change a thing; everyone would surely love everything about their ideas if it weren’t for some Russian trolls on social media.
Of course, this is patently ridiculous. These problems and the brewing discontent surrounding them existed long before some ineffectual Russian troll accounts happened to latch on. The people protesting in Paris are simply fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them; they obviously didn’t need some Russian account with 14 followers tweeting in broken French to spur them into action.
Yet news of this miniscule social media activity, hardly even enough to warrant an article of its own, is nonetheless being heavily boosted. Indeed, even the French government, desperately searching for something to blame other than themselves, has latched onto this narrative, recently announcing an investigation into the “Russian interference behind the ‘yellow vest’ protests.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened by any stretch. For another high profile example in the EU, just look at the “Russian interference” that was claimed to be behind the surge of the Catalan independence movement last year. What did this ‘Russian interference’ entail, exactly?
Headlines used emotive language to draw readers in, focusing on Spanish police violence against those who sought to vote in Catalonia’s “illegal” referendum.
So some Russian troll accounts and news outlets posted information about things that actually did happen: 900 people were injured as police shipped in from Madrid aggressively attacked groups of people attempting to vote in the “illegal” independence referendum. Apparently, even the dissemination of verifiably true information is an evil propaganda tactic. Surely if not for those Russians, everyone would have been okay with the worst single instance of police violence ever seen in the EU. Or… Maybe not. Maybe the Spanish government’s response was actually just contemptible, and even a Russian clock can be right twice a day.
Now, we can’t talk about this without also addressing the 2016 US election. Did Donald Trump, or at least his team, collude with Russia? That much is obvious. Was their social media posting machine so powerful that it actually made the difference and won him the election? Absolutely no chance — and even in a world where it did, it wouldn’t preclude the need for deep reflection within the Democratic party.
The Democrats ended up running Hillary Clinton as their candidate — a careerist, neoliberal warhawk from a political dynasty, the very embodiment of the party line politics that primarily function to keep everything exactly the same. After winning the primaries, Clinton then failed to adopt the most popular policies of her opponent, such as Medicare for All — now a mainstream position among the party’s progressive wing — instead running on a largely unaltered platform.
She thus went into the election as the clear representative of keeping everything as-is, failed to inspire even a little bit of excitement or optimism in anyone at all, then lost to a reality TV star with absolutely no political credibility nor any consistency beyond being consistently racist. In an ideal world, this outcome would have prompted soul searching among the American progressive movement. Instead, it’s caused a massive crack between two camps, with one side asserting that everything except Hillary Clinton and her team’s milquetoast politics were to blame. If it’s not Russia’s fault directly, then it’s the “useful idiots” who are portrayed as Russian sleeper agents for daring to have different views to their preferred candidate, such as Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and their supporters.
Yes, Donald Trump is a racist, a homophobe/transphobe, an enemy of the poor, an over-the-top nationalist, and everything in between those things. But Republican politicians in general are also all of those same things. Trump may have won the election with anti-establishment rhetoric, but his presidency has been firmly aligned with the Republican establishment — just without hiding the real goals of their policies behind a nice smiling face and obscurantist language. Everything that Trump stands for is, essentially, as American as apple pie, rather than something only recently conjured in a dark room where Putin and Trump planned world domination. He may have gotten some votes thanks to Russian social media campaigns, but what really got him elected was the weakness of his opponent’s platform, combined with the fact that he said out loud what many people, sadly, already thought.
Speaking of Russian ‘domination’, it would be curious if a country like Russia was actually capable of exerting the influence that many have been claiming it does. The Russia of today is not the superpower that the USSR was. If we apply to it the same standards we apply to other nations, it’s a third world/developing country, and a declining one at that. Its GDP per capita — which has fallen rapidly in recent years — is similar to that of Brazil, Malaysia, and Mexico and far below the likes of Argentina and Lebanon, all countries normally considered to be part of the third world. Its atrocious life expectancy is in league with North Korea’s. Its armed forces are dwarfed in both size and budget by the EU’s alone, not even accounting for the US. I could go on.
A declining developing country is obviously not exerting any meaningful influence over the internal politics of developed nations like France, Spain, and especially not the USA — the world’s richest and most politically influential nation that actually does regularly meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries, with far more success than Russia could ever hope for.
Yet the idea that Russia is a powerful, shadowy boogeyman that’s behind everything that’s inconvenient to the status quo is a very useful propaganda tool, much like the red scares of the past. But this time, both sides benefit: the Russians provide those ‘crying Russia’ with a convenient scapegoat, while they in turn make Russia seem much more powerful than it actually is. In doing so, they help to create the illusion of Russia as a great power, conveniently distracting the Russian people from their very real domestic issues, as well as gifting Russia much more bargaining power on the world stage. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship that dreams are made of.