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Why are Western Leaders & Media Conditioning Their Public to Hate Russia?

Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com)

Cohen has previously explained why the new Cold War is potentially even more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor, citing factors such as the political epicenter’s now being on Russia’s borders, lack of a mutual code of conduct, and the unprecedented demonization of the Kremlin leader. He had not much considered the role of Russophobia because he thought it had not been a large causal factor, unlike anti-Communism, in the preceding one, recalling an episode in his own family and, more importantly, the words of George Kennan, the architect of containment, in 1951, about the Russian people: “Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner…towards dignity and enlightenment in government.”

But strikingly Russophobic statements by former chief US intelligence officials in 2017 caused Cohen to reconsider this factor: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said on NBC national television, “the Russians, who typically, are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor”; and CIA Director John Brennan, who warned that Russians “try to suborn individuals and they try to get individuals, including US citizens, to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly…. Individuals going on a treasonous path often do not realize it until it is too late.” Former FBI director James Comey added, They’re coming after America.” And there is Senator John McCain’s often quoted characterization of Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”

Such comments by top intelligence officials, whose profession requires rigorous objectivity, and by influential political figures, set Cohen on a search for other such statements by leading opinion-makers and publications. He gives only a few of many representative examples.

  • The March presidential election, a kind of referendum on his 18 years as leader, gave Vladimir Putin a resounding, nearly 77 percent endorsement. The election was widely characterized by leading US media outlets as “a sham,” which denigrates, of course, the integrity of Russian voters. Indeed, a leading Putin demonizer had earlier characterized Russian public opinion as mob’s opinion.”
  • A Rolling Stone writer goes further, explaining that “Russia experts” think “much of what passes for civil society in modern Russia is, in fact, controlled by Putin.” Civil society means, of course, all non-state groups and associations, that is, society itself.
  • A recent Washington Post editorial headline reads: “Is It a Crime to Worship God? According to Russia, Yes.” This about a country where the Orthodox Church is flourishing and Jews are freer than they have ever been in Russian history.
  • A Washington Post sports columnist, referring to doping allegations, which may fall apart, characterizes Russian 2018 medal winners as representatives of “a shamed nation.”
  • A New YorkTimes columnist quotes approvingly a Post columnist, an expert on Russia, for asserting that “Putin’s Russia” is “an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics…[a] norm-violating power.”
  • The title of an article by CNN’s Russia expert begins: Russia’s Snark.”
  • Another prominent media commentator advises, Treat Russia Like the Terrorist It Is; and yet another terms Russia Gangster’s Paradise.”
  • A leading policy expert on Russia and former US official has decided that the West doesn’t have a Putin problem: In fact, it has a Russia problem.”
  • Regarding Russia, a widely respected Harvard policy intellectual regrets, The brute fact is that we cannot kill this bastard without committing suicide.”
  • According to a longtime Fox Russia expert, who recently resigned, Putin behaves as he does because they are Russians.”
  • A Post book editor tells readers that Russians tolerate “tyrants like Stalin and Putin” because “it probably seems normal.”
  • And a prominent Russia expert media commentator wonders whether Russia can ever be normal.”
  • Not to be overlooked, there are also ubiquitous media cartoons depicting Russia as a menacing, rapacious bear.

How to explain this rampant Russophobia? Three important but little noted books provide much useful history and analysis: David S. Foglesong’s The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”; Andrei P. Tsygankov’s Russophobia; and, most recently, Guy Mettan’s Creating Russophobia, which equates it with “Russo-madness.” They examine many factors: ethnic peoples (now independent states with large diasporas) with historical grievances against both the Tsarist and Soviet empires; historical developments beginning in the 19th century; today’s American military-industrial complex’s budgetary need for an “enemy” since the end of the Soviet Union; other current anti-Russian lobbies in the United States and the absence of any pro-Russian ones; as well as other explanatory factors.

All need to be considered, but for Cohen three circumstances are certain: Russian attitudes toward America are not historically or genetically predetermined, as evidenced by the “Gorbymania” that swept the United States in the late 1980s when Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan tried to end the previous Cold War; the extraordinary demonization of Putin has attached itself to Russia; and Russophobia among American political and media elites—much less so among ordinary citizens—is another factor that has made the new Cold War so much more dangerous.

Author Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University and a contributing editor of The Nation.

This article was originally published by The Nation.  

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