Current Affairs

The Irrational Fear of Russia

The arguments made against Russia are often weak or hypocritical, and U.S. commentators still subscribe to a “Russo-Orientalism” that views the country as a mysterious dangerous Other.

I believe we should be speaking not so much about East and West as about deep psychological phenomena like life and death drives. There are cultures where the death drive is stronger: just think of the Aztecs. Of course, such cultures can possess great aesthetic value and may have their heroic aspects. But the history of the twentieth century provides very strong evidence that this instinct is dominant in Russia as in few other countries.
— Igor Pomerantsev 

Russia is not a country that wants stability. Russia is a country that is interested in chaos. It created chaos in Ukraine. Who are Russia’s friends? It backed Assad!       
Anne Applebaum

It is a question that the West has habitually pondered ever since the October Revolution of 1917: what to do about Russia? In particular—and to frame the issue in contemporary terms—should the West maintain, or even escalate, its current aggressive posture towards Russia? Or should it be seeking political, economic, and military détente

Elementary moral and logical reasoning would seem to suggest that it choose the latter option. After all, it is indisputable that the West’s adoption of an increasingly hostile attitude towards the most heavily nuclear-armed state on Earth increases the likelihood of a full-blown nuclear war between East and West—a war which, according to a recent Princeton University study, would kill 34 million people within just its first few hours, and which many experts believe would likely result in the extinction of the human species. Indeed, in an ominous recent statement, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists remarked upon how the recent increase in tensions has led “governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries [to] appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use”—which, in turn, is a key reason why their vaunted “Doomsday Clock” is currently set at 100 seconds to midnight, “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced.”

Nevertheless, polling data suggests that there is significant support among citizens of Western societies to pursue the escalation option. A recent Pew poll has indicated that Western Europeans’ attitudes towards Russia are increasingly bleak: citizens of both Western European nuclear powers—the United Kingdom and France—now have less favorable opinions of Russia today than they had in the early 2010s (in the U.K.’s case, significantly less favorable). Even more ominously, a Gallup poll published earlier this month noted that Americans’ image of Russia has hit a “historic low,” with 77% of U.S. citizens having a “very/mostly unfavorable” view of the country, while another poll has found that a third of Americans now identify Russia as the United States’ “chief enemy.” (Incidentally, the feeling is mutual: a recent Russian poll has found that almost half of all Russians regard the U.S. as their greatest enemy.)

Though it is, perhaps, tempting to dismiss such results as the product of irrational fears stoked by Western countries’ politicians and media systems, there is, at the very least, some evidence to suggest that some Western citizens are being persuaded to support a more aggressive posture towards Russia on the basis of rational argumentation. 

One such piece of evidence are the results of a recent debate at the Oxford Union—arguably the world’s most prestigious debating society—in which the motion “This House Believes the West Treats Russia Unfairly” ended up being defeated. But an even better, and more immediately quantifiable, piece of evidence is the results of a “Munk Debate”—a semi-annual series of debates named after its main sponsor, Canadian businessman Peter Munk – which took place in Toronto, Canada, on the 10th of April, 2015. The resolution to be discussed was: “Be it resolved, the West should engage not isolate Russia.” Arguing for the resolution were the Russian-French-American journalist Vladimir Pozner and the late American scholar of Russian studies Stephen F. Cohen; arguing against it were the former Russian chess world champion Garry Kasparov and the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum.

Before the evening’s debate, the audience members were polled: 58% said they supported the resolution, while 42% said they were against it. At the end of the debate, the numbers had shifted dramatically: a majority (52%) now claimed to be against the resolution, and only 48% claimed to be in favor of it. In other words, Applebaum and Kasparov had apparently succeeded in persuading (at least) 10% of the audience to change their minds and, in doing so, had emphatically won the debate.

Anyone interested in understanding the reasons for the growing Western antagonism towards Russia should be interested in the question: how did Applebaum and Kasparov win? Moreover, were the reasons they gave for “isolating” Russia rational ones? And more specifically, did they clearly and carefully explain how the supposed benefits of adopting a more confrontational approach towards Russia would outweigh the cost of increasing the likelihood of mass nuclear annihilation and potential human extinction?

As the reader may determine for themselves at their own leisure, the reasons for Applebaum and Kasparov’s success were, at the very least, not purely due to inherent rationality of their respective arguments. For instance, audience perceptions were almost certainly influenced by the fact that, at one point in the debate, Pozner embarrassingly forgot the dates when several Central and Eastern European countries became members of NATO (he initially claimed that Poland and a “unified Czechoslovakia” joined in 1991, when in fact Poland and Czech Republic joined in 1999, and Slovakia only in 2004), and then, rather bizarrely, claimed that this didn’t matter because he was interested in “facts” rather than “dates”). Moreover, Kasparov’s apparent (and, to my mind, inexplicable) ability to make the audience laugh also likely contributed to his debate team’s eventual triumph—though his overall contribution to his team’s performance is uncertain, given his boorish behavior all evening and the manifest absurdity of some of his arguments, for instance, his suggestion that Ukraine should be provided with nuclear weapons so as to deter a Russian invasion (“Ukraine [used to have] the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. […] If some of these warheads were aimed at Moscow today, Putin would never have crossed the Ukrainian border.”)

Indisputably, however, the main reason for the winning team’s success was the performance of Anne Applebaum. Not only did she prove adept at providing classic debate “zingers” and ad hominem attacks (e.g., claiming, without evidence, that Cohen harbored “repressed nostalgia” for the Soviet regime), but her speeches and responses routinely received the loudest applause of the night.

But what actual arguments did Applebaum make? These can, I think, be fairly neatly separated into four distinct categories. (Unless otherwise stated, the following quotes are drawn from a lightly-edited transcript of the debate published as the 2016 book, Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia? The Munk Debates.)

  1. Economic — Russia is “one of the most unequal countries in the world” – indeed, according to Applebaum, it is essentially a “feudal empire” in which the “political rulers [are] literally the country’s owners.” Moreover, Russian political and economic elites “badly need to keep the international financial system safe for [their] corrupt money”; in particular, their “ample use of tax havens” is a “disaster for ordinary Russians” as it deprives the Russian government of vital tax revenue. Thus, Applebaum claimed, “we need to get Russian money out of the Western financial system.”
  2. Political — Russia uses its vast energy resources and infrastructure to “blackmail and bully its neighbors,” particularly those in Eastern and Central Europe. Furthermore, Russia has “invested heavily in anti-European, anti-transatlantic, and even fascist political movements all across Europe” (e.g., a Russian bank reportedly lent 9 million euros to far-right French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen during her campaign). Thus, Applebaum concluded, “we need to get Russian money out of European politics.” 
  3. Media — Russia “has invested massively in an enormous system of disinformation”, including “web sites, ‘fake’ think tanks [and] a vast army of Internet trolls,” which are “designed to create chaos and confusion” in the West. Thus, Applebaum claimed that the West must “work harder to identify Russian lies and get them out of our media.” 
  4. Military — Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried over the last couple of decades to create in Ukraine “a copycat, colonial version of the political system he invented in Russia.” This, in turn, primarily explains why the Ukrainian “Maidan Revolution” of 2014, and subsequent war with Russia and Russian annexation of Crimea, took place. Thus, Applebaum ominously suggested, the West needs “to make Putin pay a high price for invading a neighbor [i.e. Ukraine] so he doesn’t invade another one.”

Presumably, were Applebaum to make the same argument today, she would also cite as supporting evidence: (i) Russian hackers’ alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and (ii) Russia’s military—and subsequent credible allegations of war crimes—on behalf of the Assad government in Syria in late 2015. (Indeed, in more recent articles Applebaum has excoriated Russia on both of these grounds.)

In short: Russia is bad. Moreover—at least on the charitable version of this argument—Russia is so bad that we in the West are morally compelled to adopt a more openly confrontational posture towards it, even if this means escalating the risk of nuclear apocalypse and concomitant human extinction. (Interestingly, and somewhat relatedly, Applebaum is someone who appears to be curiously unperturbed by the prospects of nuclear war; indeed, she once even suggested that Western leaders “might occasionally have to drop a mention of NATO’s nuclear weapons into the conversation” with Russian leaders—that is, verbally threaten Russia with the prospect of a nuclear first strike.)

Undoubtedly, there are some elements of truth to Applebaum’s argument. After all, Russia is a highly unequal country—by some measures, the world’s most unequal country—in which those with economic and financial power wield a highly disproportionate amount of political influence. It is also a country that suffers enormously from various kinds of corruption, and in which members of the political and economic elite are routinely able to funnel their money out of the country via the Western financial system. Furthermore, it is a country which has invested heavily in media organizations designed to promote its own interests and point of view. And it is also a country that, unquestionably, has violated Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, both through its military support of pro-Russian proxy forces in the country’s east and by its annexation of Crimea (the latter of which was declared to “have no validity” by the UN General Assembly).

Nevertheless, the fact that Applebaum appeals to some true facts does not mean that her argument is good.  Indeed, upon reflection, it becomes clear that there are at least three significant problems with it.

Firstly, there is nothing distinctively Russian about much of the behavior that Applebaum criticizes. Why, specifically, should we as Western citizens attempt to get Russian money or Russian lies out of Western finance or politics—as opposed to money or lies in general? Presumably, Applebaum would respond to this point by claiming that Russian money and lies are particularly nefarious, but that other sources of money and lies are not. Indeed, in a pre-debate interview Applebaum appeared to go even further, and suggested that Russian influence in general—which would include, apparently, cultural influence—is especially pernicious, and should be eradicated from Western society (“I think we really need to think about getting Russian influence out of our societies”). But, even putting aside this claim’s apparent xenophobia (could the same be said about, e.g., Mexican influence?), Applebaum does not provide any reason to think that “Russian influence” is especially pernicious—at least, compared to (e.g.) Chinese, or Israeli, or Saudi influence—and nor, for that matter, does she explain how one could attempt to eliminate “Russian lies” from Western media in a manner compatible with the “Western value” of freedom of speech. 

Secondly, if the main goal is to stop Russia from engaging in the above-mentioned behavior, it is, at best, unclear why isolating Russia offers a more effective means of achieving this goal than engaging with it. In particular, if the goal is to, say, stop Russian oligarchs laundering their money through Western banks, it surely stands to reason that this would best be achieved by allowing or even encouraging Russian financial investigators and litigators to work in cooperation with Western ones. After all, money laundering and the use of tax havens are widespread practices among members of the global economic and political elite—indeed, they are, by their very nature, global problems. Isolating one country as a means of solving them would appear to be not only unhelpful, but actively counter-productive in the achievement of this goal.

The third and most obvious problem with Applebaum’s argument, however, is the blatant hypocrisy. After all, the country of which Applebaum is a citizen, namely the United States, is also a highly unequal society (by some measures, even more unequal than Russia), in which the rich routinely engage in tax evasion and avoidance, often through the use of tax havens; it also uses its energy resources to bully Central and Eastern European nations, for instance by pressuring Europe to buy American as opposed to Russian natural gas; it also funds media outlets that promote its interests and points of view; it also (routinely) violates the sovereignty of nation states (either directly or by supporting proxy military forces); and it also routinely interferes in other countries’ media and electoral processes (including Russia’s). All of which raises the obvious question—one which remained curiously unasked by Pozner and Cohen during the debate: if Russia’s nefarious behavior constitutes a sufficient reason to try to isolate it, why shouldn’t the rest of the world adopt a similarly hostile attitude towards the United States?

Usually, this is the point in the conversation at which Applebaum, as well as other writers and thinkers who are in favor of the West adopting a more confrontational approach towards Russia, would bring out a key weapon in their rhetorical arsenal: namely, the accusation of whataboutism—a notion which, according to The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding, is “practically a national ideology” in Russia. Indeed, in her new book, Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum lambasts whataboutism not just for “mirror[ing] Putin’s own propaganda,” but also because “it is an argument for moral equivalence, an argument that undermines faith, hope, and the belief that we can live up to the language of our Constitution.”

Whataboutism, then, is clearly supposed to be bad. But what, exactly, is it? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition, whataboutism “is a rhetorical device that involves accusing others of offenses as a way of deflecting attention from one’s own deeds.” It is also, we are told, a “logical fallacy, because whether or not the original accuser is likewise guilty of an offense has no bearing on the truth of the value of the original accusation.”

So construed, whataboutism certainly is a logical fallacy: if person A accuses person B of nefarious deeds, B’s reverse-accusation of A’s hypocrisy does not, by itself, refute A’s original accusation. (If I accuse you of stealing my wallet, your counterclaim that I stole your phone, even if true, doesn’t thereby mean that you didn’t steal my wallet.) The problem, however, is that in the context under discussion—namely, the validity of arguments to the effect that the West should attempt to isolate Russia—it is inapplicable. Recall Applebaum’s central claim: it is because Russia has committed various moral and legal crimes that the West should attempt to isolate it. The counterclaim being made here is not the blanket denial that Russia has committed (many of) these crimes; rather, it is the claim that, if the mere committal of such crimes constitutes a sufficient reason for a country’s isolation, then the United States should be isolated as well. In other words, the counterclaim being made here is not the logical fallacy of “whataboutism,” but rather a simple, manifestly logical application of reductio ad absurdum.

This fact can be further brought into focus by imagining the reverse scenario, in which hawkish, “anti-American” Russian intellectuals argue for Russia’s adoption of a more hostile posture towards the United States. In support of their view, such people might mention, for instance, the U.S.’s history of genocide, slavery, colonialism, and racism; its recent (and not-so-recent) destructive military interventions; its use of drone strikes; its enormous current levels of inequality; its enforcement of brutal and illegal sanctions against sovereign nations; its banking system’s overwhelming responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis; its aggressive pursuit of novel nuclear weapon technologies; its imposition of disastrous “shock therapy” economic policies around the world (including in Russia); its expansion of NATO, a hostile military alliance, right up to Russia’s borders, despite multiple promises to the contrary; its interference in other country’s elections (including, again, in Russia); its prosecution of whistleblowers; and its support for its dictators and oppressive regimes around the world. Now imagine if, in response to such accusations, the Applebaums of this world responded by alluding to the fact that Russia, too, is hardly an innocent player on the global stage, and that it, too, is guilty of many (though not all) of the crimes it accuses the U.S. of committing. In such an instance, would it be legitimate for the Russian hawks to accuse Applebaum & co. of “whataboutism,” and of thereby committing a logical fallacy? Or would, rather, Applebaum & co. simply be pointing out the hypocrisy of their interlocutors, as a straightforward means of demonstrating the absurdity of their professed viewpoint?

Indeed, the term “whataboutism,” at least insofar as the term is actually used, does not typically refer to logical fallacies of the kind spelled out above. Instead, it is more often part of a broader rhetorical technique used predominantly by Western intellectuals to deflect, or even silence, charges of hypocrisy when they, or other intellectuals, criticize foreign adversaries, including (but not limited to) Russia. Here, for example, is Applebaum herself, in Twilight of Democracy, castigating (then-) U.S. President Donald Trump for allegedly employing the tactic:

 In a 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, [former President Donald Trump] expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, using a classic form of “whataboutism”. “But he’s a killer,” said O’Reilly. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” […] This way of speaking – “Putin is a killer, but so are we all” – mirrors Putin’s own propaganda, which often states, in so many words, “Okay, Russia is corrupt, but so is everyone else.” 

Pace Applebaum, this is not a “classic form of ‘whataboutism,’” at least according to the dictionary definition of the term quoted above. After all, Trump is not disagreeing with O’Reilly’s assertion that Putin is a “killer”; indeed, if anything, he is fully agreeing with it. (In the original video, Trump visibly nods in agreement when O’Reilly claims that Putin is a “killer”; moreover, as the quote above attests, Applebaum herself construes Trump as agreeing that Putin is a “killer.”) He is, therefore, emphatically not attempting to refute the truth of his interlocutor’s original assertion. Furthermore, nor is he even the person being accused. He is merely pointing out the incontestable fact that the United States—the country of which himself and O’Reilly are citizens, and of which Trump himself was the then-elected leaderalso bears responsibility for killing people. But in what meaningful sense, then, is this an instance of whataboutism, let alone a “a classic form” of it? When did simply recognizing your own country’s crimes become a logical fallacy?

(In fact, the context of the interview makes it plausible to think that Trump was, in fact, also employing a reductio ad absurdum-type argument here. Just prior to O’Reilly’s claim that Putin is “a killer,” Trump was discussing the prospects of Russia and the US forming a partnership to defeat ISIS and “Islamic terrorism all over the world.” Thus, Trump might, not entirely unreasonably, be construed as implicitly arguing as follows: “If being a ‘killer’ disqualifies one from forming a partnership to defeat ISIS or terrorism, then we – namely, the United States – are also thus disqualified. But this is crazy. So, Putin’s being a killer shouldn’t disqualify him from partnering with us to defeat ISIS.”)


So far, there does not in fact appear to be any good reason whatsoever for the citizens—and, by extension, the governments—of Western countries not to seek better relations with Russia. Arguments which purport to establish that the West should maintain, or even escalate, current tensions with Russia either have little to do with Russia specifically (e.g., the use of tax havens by Russian oligarchs, when in fact such practices are widespread amongst members of the political and financial elite in many countries) or are deeply hypocritical, insofar as many of the crimes that Russia is accused of have also been committed, sometimes in much worse form, by the West. (Indeed, by parity of reasoning, such Western crimes could just as easily be appealed to by Russian intellectuals as a means of justifying their more aggressive posture towards the West.) Moreover, the argumentative ploy often used as a means of deflecting the charge of hypocrisy—namely, the appeal to whataboutism—is, in fact, a rhetorically pernicious term of art, for it allows Western intellectuals to repeatedly denounce (often real) Russian crimes, whilst simultaneously rhetorically protecting themselves or their own countries from the charge of hypocrisy. (“We are accusing you; and any attempt from you to criticize us is not just playing into Putin’s hands, but is, in addition, logically fallacious.”) In short, the arguments not only do not come anywhere near passing the almost impassably high bar of justifying increasing the likelihood of nuclear apocalypse, but they are logically worthless in their own right. 

There is, however, one final element of Western discourse about Russia that should be discussed here; one which, indeed, likely needs to be eliminated in order for concerned Westerners to be able to effectively engage their fellow citizens and governments into adopting a less hostile posture towards Russia. Moreover, it is an element that, I think, plays a crucial—albeit often unnoticed—role in providing legitimacy to many of the arguments often made by those, like Applebaum, who seek to further entrench division and hostility between Russia and the West. This is, for want of a better word, the Russo-Orientalist nature of much of the discourse itself.

Russo-Orientalism, in short, is a certain way of thinking or talking about Russia, according to which it is viewed as a monolithic, radically different, (semi-)mysterious and dangerous entity which is, above all, hostile to the West. Moreover, in analogy with “classical” Orientalism in Edward Said’s sense, Russo-Orientalism plays a crucial role in legitimizing contemporary Western policies towards Russia. That is, it is because Russia is perceived as semi-mysterious, hostile, and fundamentally “Other” to the West which explains why we, too, are encouraged to adopt—and, indeed, often find it easy to accept adopting—an openly confrontational attitude towards it.

To be sure, the ubiquity of this discourse does not by itself imply that anything ignorant or false can be said about contemporary Russia. For instance, senior MSNBC pundit Joy Reid was widely mocked not too long ago for suggesting that modern Russia is still a “communist” nation. Nevertheless, it does explain why some manifestly absurd things may be said about Russia even by putative members of the Western intellectual elite—often without so much as a passing comment by other Western intellectuals. 

Take, for instance, Peter Pomerantsev’s suggestion, in his much-lauded—and quintessentially Russo-Orientalist—memoir Nothing Is Real and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, that modern Russia is a place where, in addition to having guaranteed frequent encounters with gangsters, supermodels, jaded postmodernist media moguls and nefarious billionaires, you also “have to split yourself up into little bits” and where “words [don’t] mean things”—in short, a place so inherently bizarre and soul-corrupting that Pomerantsev eventually has to “go back to London, which is measured.” (By contrast, in the same book Pomerantsev writes that Las Vegas—a city renowned for its drinking, gambling, prostitution, and general decadence—is an “accessible, colorful pastiche.”) Or take the renowned former Cambridge academic Orlando Figes’ crudely xenophobic suggestion, in his otherwise magisterial book on the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, that “the Russians were by nature especially ill-prepared for the disciplines of parliamentary practice […]. Russian democracy can be rather like the Russians themselves: chaotic and disorganized.” (In a new introduction to the book, Figes has even gone as far as to claim, outrageously, that “all the methods used by ISIS […] were mastered by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.”) Or take Applebaum’s claim, quoted at the start of this essay, that contemporary Russia is “not a country that wants stability” but, rather, is “interested in chaos”; or, indeed, Igor Pomerantsev’s (Peter Pomerantsev’s father) suggestion, also quoted above, that Russia is a country driven by a “death drive”—whereas Ukraine, by contrast, is “a country with an instinct for life.”

Moreover, it is precisely this discourse which provides the intellectual background for established media outlets to publish articles entitled “Why Russia and the West can’t get along”; which allows for the Oxford Union to host ostensibly serious debates entitled, “Do We Live in Putin’s World?”; and which permits, and even encourages, the current president of the United States to openly state that he believes that the president of Russia—someone who, for better or for worse, enjoys a 67% approval rating among Russian citizens—“has no soul.” 

To be clear, the root problem here is not the inherent risibility of the claims or the assumptions underlying them. Rather, the problem is the broader intellectual culture which allows for these kinds of statements to be made. That is, only a society swimming in the waters of a poisoned discourse could conceivably permit its purported “intellectuals” or leaders to say such things—and, moreover, laud them for saying such things. Thus it should be a key priority among progressives, activists, and indeed all citizens of Western countries not just to persuade our fellow citizens and pressure their leaders to seek a rapprochement with Russia (so as to reduce, and eventually eliminate altogether, the prospect of a potentially species-ending nuclear war), but also to make extensive efforts to alter the nature of Western intellectual discourse itself. Indeed, it is likely the case that, without substantially altering that discourse, achieving that lasting peace will forever remain a practical impossibility—a fact as tragic as it is enormously dangerous.

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