On January 10, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) released a Foreign Relations Committee staff report purporting to detail a “nearly two decades-long assault on democratic institutions, universal values and the rule of law across Europe and his own country” by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Putin’s Assymetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security” finds President Trump negligent in responding to the Russian threat, leaving the United States allegedly vulnerable “to the Kremlin’s aggressive and sophisticated malign influence operation.”
This operation encompasses alleged cyber-attacks in Europe and the United States, military aggression on its neighbors, a large scale propaganda offensive, support for far-left and far-right groups in Europe, and interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
According to the report’s analysis, Mr. Putin has restored the totalitarian features of the Tsarist and Soviet systems in Russia, combining “military adventurism and aggression abroad with propaganda and political repression at home.” Putin in turn sees successful democracies, especially along Russia’s periphery, as threats to his regime because they present an alternative to his “corrupt and criminal rule.”
While some aspects may be true, Cardin’s report is blatantly one-sided, alarmist and misleading in its analysis of international affairs.
It blames Putin for criminal actions that have not been substantiated, like assassination, his amassing a vast personal fortune, and his alleged killing of human rights activists and whistle-blowers.
The report furthermore advances a Russophobic discourse and stereotypes about Russia that have been prevalent in Western societies for centuries.
In the 1760s, French diplomats, for example, produced a forged testament of Peter the Great purporting to reveal Russia’s grand design to conquer most of Europe.
Countless caricatures subsequently showed the Russian bear as symbol of the autocratic and barbaric Asia threatening to devour civilized, democratic and allegedly innocent Europe.
In Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria, Swiss journalist Guy Mettan dates the origins of contemporary Russophobic discourse to the Middle Ages when Charlemagne competed with Byzantium for the title of heir to the Roman empire, and anti-orthodox Catholic propaganda followed the schism between the West and East of which Russia was associated.
According to Mettan, Russophobia resembles both anti-semitism and Islamophobia in that it “exists first in the head of the one who looks not in the victims alleged behavior or characteristics. [It is] a way of turning specific pseudo-facts into essential one-dimensional values, barbarity, despotism and expansionism in the Russian case in order to justify stigmatization and ostracism.”
This stigmatization serves a necessary function of validating huge military budgets in the United States today and expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) towards Russia’s borders.
Cardin’s report significantly omits the fact that three U.S. presidential administrations reneged on a verbal agreement made by Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 that NATO would not be expanded to the East in return for Russia’s agreeing to German reunification.
It further leaves out the fact that the United States supported Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 and backed the 2014 Maidan protests and coup d’état in Ukraine, precipitating civil war.
Laughably, Putin’s “propaganda offensive” is said to be rooted in Soviet disinformation campaigns claiming that the FBI and CIA were involved in the JFK assassination and exposing the sexuality of anticommunist ideologues, J. Edgar Hoover and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
The report goes on to unfoundedly attack Italian politicians who hope that Russia could be an important ally for the European Union and brands Italy’s populist Five Star movement as complicit in the Kremlin’s “propaganda” offensive.
Mettan notes that historically, “Europe in crisis and divided, needs the Russian foe to achieve unity. Like in the famous Snow White Fairy tale, the West is like the evil stepmother who keeps questioning its mirror to reassure itself of its primacy. But the Russian mirror is resisting and always can show that the West is not the most beautiful in the world.”
The American political establishment has indeed come across like the evil stepmother battering Russia in a desperate attempt at self-reassurance. Its true image, however, bears eerie resemblance to that of the imagined Putin!
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of several books on U.S. foreign policy, including the forthcoming, The Russians are Coming Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).