Is All the Russia Talk Helping Putin?

Not since the end of the Cold War has the political climate in the United States been so focused on Russia. Suspicions that the president tried to shut down investigations into his campaign’s ties to Moscow imperil his political future. Russia and the United States are moving toward a confrontation of sorts over Syrian airspace. Almost daily, stories surface about Russian attempts to inject false information into last year’s political debate, or—far more unsettling—to hack into the election software of several states. The Senate, brushing aside the administration’s objections, voted almost unanimously to impose new sanctions against Russia and to limit Trump’s ability to soften them. Allies’ concerns about the president’s distance from NATO and his withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord are rooted in the fear that he is providing aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin’s basic goal of splintering the Western alliance.

What unites these disparate events is the belief that Putin, who is well into his second decade as Russia’s paramount leader, is a figure of near-mythical strength, presiding over the international chessboard with cunning and guile. But if you sit down with two young Russians whose work is analyzing what is happening in the country of their birth, you get a substantially different picture. In their view, Russia’s attack on the West stems from its growing internal weakness; and the more the West treats Putin as a 10-foot-tall ogre, the better it is for him back home. In that sense, America’s new obsession with Russia isn’t hurting the Kremlin strongman – it’s helping him.

Anton Barbashin and Olga Irisova, both 27 tears old, who are the co-founders and editors of “Intersection,” an online journal devoted to exploring the links between Russia’s foreign policy and propaganda efforts both at home and abroad. Their work has drawn the attention of Russia-watchers in the West, bringing them to the United States for a nationwide speaking tour. They’ve lived and worked in Warsaw since February of 2014, because it is easier to evade interference (although, Anton says with a smile, “we haven’t had much interference, because we’re not that big—yet”). What they see in Putin’s aggressive efforts against the West is a direct consequence of real trouble at home.

Russia’s domestic economy, Olga says, has been hit by two blows: the sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the falling price of energy. The country’s GDP, she notes, has dropped from about $2.3 trillion to $1.3 trillion in a three-year period. It’s now barely higher than that of Italy. Cash reserves have dropped from $86 billion to $17 billion, and may be nearing exhaustion by year’s end. Protests—including a significant truckers’ strike, have grown, but news of such discord is essentially blacked out on Russian media.

What is covered—massively—is news about the West, and especially from America.

“If you watch Russian TV on any given day, “ says Anton, 70 percent of it is global affairs, much from the U.S. “You’d think you live in the U.S., there’s so much coverage,” he says. And, since relatively few Russians travel abroad, “the coverage has credibility—which is not true about domestic affairs. And that coverage is devoted to a single theme: the model of Western liberal democracy is broken.”

Unlike the Stalinist days, Russian TV does not offer endless celebrations of a workers’ paradise. The message now is more subtle.

“The propaganda,” Anton says, is that “we’re not perfect, we’re flawed, but the West is no better.” In fact, he argues, the flood of disinformation during the U.S. presidential election was built around the idea that, since Hillary Clinton was going to win, and since she represented a much tougher approach to Moscow than Trump, it was important to undermine any claims about the moral superiority of a Clinton-led America.

“From everything we know,” Anton says, “the whole Kremlin strategy was that she was gong to win but let’s use this opportunity to show that the U.S. is broken, that there’s no real democracy there, that she won by cheating Bernie Sanders, that Trump was going to make it easier to work with Russia, but the establishment didn’t let her win.” In that sense, they argue, Trump’s victory was a priceless gift to the Kremlin.

And so, in a sense, is the growing concern in the U.S. that Russia may actually have helped determine the outcome of the election. For a nation whose people, and leadership, is still obsessed with the loss of the Soviet empire, there’s comfort in the idea that Russia is a dangerously powerful political force.

“When they see U.S. officials commenting so much on Russian influence, it’s almost flattering,” says Anton. “It’s like the people are hearing, ‘OK, you don’t have incomes, health care, good homes, but you do have a powerful leader.’”

When it comes to Russia’s political future, Anton and Olga have little optimism about the short term. The experience of a clumsy stumble into democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union remains, for many Russians, a cautionary tale, with politically connected insiders swiftly gobbling up state-run enterprises, while the average Russian saw a tangible drop in living standards. That privation helped spark a blossoming of nostalgia for “the good old days” of firm leadership; even Stalin is remembered by many Russians with affection.

“In 1991,” says Olga, “we had a very flawed democracy and it was a hardship for the majority, so when Russians think ‘democracy’ they think, ‘hardship, instability. ‘Liberal’ is almost a dirty word.

“But if you ask them what changes they want, you’ll hear responses about a democratic state. They want to have rights, property protected, opportunities presented. They want to be ‘normal’ in a sense. But when you call it ’democracy’, they say, ‘Well, we want something else.’”

Anton is even more pessimistic. “The only way to fix what is wrong is if Russia will collapse, economically and socially. the majority has to see how bad things are, and the only way for that to happen is for Russia to suffer. What Russia needs is essentially what Germany had after World War II. But without occupation,” he hastily adds.

In the nearly 50 years between the onset of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was challenged to find a posture toward Moscow that recognized both the threat and the limits of Soviet power. That meant resisting expansionist moves in Western Europe, acknowledging Soviet spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, and above all embracing the wisdom of experts like George Kennan, who reminded policymakers to understand the inherent weakness of the Soviet Union and use it to the West’s advantage.

Today, with an American president who at times seems determined to act as Putin’s (presumably) unwitting ally, it’s imperative for Trump’s foreign policy team, and for Congress, to pursue a set of policies that recognize the reality of what Russia represents today: an adversary out to undermine an allied West and erode its faith in democratic norms, but an foe highly vulnerable to effective economic responses to its malevolent assaults. The counsel of these two young Russians should be greeted with the respect and rapt attention of their elders.

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