Ivan Kurilla is a professor of history and international relations at the European University at St. Petersburg.
ST. PETERSBURG — Russians are watching the unfolding scandal of their country’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election with a mixture of amusement, pride, indignation and regret. For a historian of U.S.-Russian relations like myself, the steady flow of anti-Russian cant by the media and among opportunistic politicians is an old story that is repeating itself once again: When America is in crisis, Russia is the ready whipping boy.
Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin are proud of the great abilities of the Russian state and its mighty leader who, through his wise and wily ways, was able to influence even the selection of the U.S. president. State propagandists deny all accusations of election meddling, while, at the same time, using the ongoing obsession with Russia to trumpet Putin’s success as a world-class leader to whom other nations must pay heed.
Russian liberal critics of Putin’s regime are upset for exactly the same reason. They believe that the American media and political class have inflated Putin’s significance well beyond his actual capacity. In the view of Russian liberals, America’s continuing obsession for a second year in a row only bolsters his otherwise fading popularity at home. They also worry that the image of an American political system that is so easily vulnerable to relatively minor interference promotes anti-democratic ideas and rhetoric in Russia.
All this matters a great deal for us Russians, since domestic politics have long been interconnected with Moscow’s relations with Washington. Periods of increasing U.S.–Russian cooperation usually coincided with the liberalization of politics at home, while each wave of hostility has found victims among Russian liberals and set back their democratizing agenda. The damage already done to long-term U.S.-Russian relations causes much regret among West-leaning Russians.
Most Russians — those opposed to Putin’s regime as well as those loyal to him — just don’t understand why the tone of the American media in the various investigations has turned out to be so anti-Russian. If the concern is about what Trump’s election and transition team did, why demonize Russia?
Many here in Russia compare what is alleged to have happened in the U.S. election as comparable to America’s alleged meddling in past Russian elections. For many Russian liberals, today’s news revives the story of the 2012 protests against the falsification of Russian election results. State propaganda at that time marginalized the protest leaders by linking them to U.S. diplomats and, as an important supplementary move, by demonizing America.
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time, was a victim of that propagandistic campaign. In 2017, the stories about the “toxic” Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak resonated for Russian liberals as a mirror image of those events. It is hard to imagine that Trump’s then national security adviser Michael Flynn would lie to his superiors about the nature of his conversations with Kislyak if such contacts were not already deemed suspicious by Trump’s critics.
Looking at the history of U.S.-Russia relations, I see several cases in the past that look similar to the present. Fake claims of Soviet ploys were constantly trotted out during the Cold War by American conservatives to prove that everything they despised in the U.S. — whether civil rights or the anti-Vietnam War movement — was instigated by the Soviets.
The Cold War had its own ups and downs. After the period of detente and lessening tensions in the first half of the 1970s, new conflicts arose in the second half of the decade. Well before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter started to severely criticize Moscow on human rights violations. He invoked America’s moral superiority to attack an old rival at a moment when America’s luster in the world had been severely damaged by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Carter’s (and later President Ronald Reagan’s) major goal was to revive American pride by using Russia as a foil.
A century before Carter, Americans lived through another identity crisis in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when trust in American moral leadership had been similarly undermined. The publication of a famous book in 1891 by the explorer George Kennan (not to be confused with the later Cold War diplomat George F. Kennan, a distant cousin) on the Siberian exile system under the czars provided an opportunity for Americans troubled by their own recent history to condemn Russian despotism and thus better in comparison.
There is no doubt that czarist Russia, the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia should be criticized for its corrupt political system and human rights violations. But we cannot ignore the fact that the timing of the American debates about Russia, and the intensity of that discourse, cannot be explained by Russian actions alone.
The Russian theme rears its head in American society only amid domestic crises; Russia is portrayed either as a menacing source of trouble on the home front or as some inferior power that deserves lectures from superior Americans. Both have been central to maintaining American trust in its historical mission as the world leader of democracy. Americans, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once critically put it, like to think of themselves as “the tutors of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.”
Looking at the present American obsession with Russia from this perspective, it is clear that, once again, Russia is being used as the whipping boy in a domestic struggle. Many Americans clearly despise Trump. They think of him as somehow un-American, as his positions and his very appearance contradicts their understanding of what it should mean to be an American leader. The collusion scandal provides a convenient substantiation for their suspicions.
Other Americans just see it as a good tool to keep an unpredictable president under constant pressure. Trump’s team’s meetings with Russians, be they innocent or malicious, have made it possible for critics to link the president to the traditional “other” of American identity, thereby reinforcing the demonic image of Russia and its intentions.
What has already happened and will happen to Trump is a thoroughly American issue that has very little to do with Russia. I am concerned about the impact of the recent media campaign and political rhetoric on Russia-U.S. relations going forward. There are several short-term results of this story that are obvious: public suspicion will not permit Trump to make any move to better relations between our two countries or to negotiate any compromise on pressing issues such as nuclear weapons or European security.
The long-term consequences are more serious: revitalizing the image of a demonic Russia threatening the U.S. political system, the feeling of vulnerability and weakness of American democracy vis-à-vis authoritarian challengers, and a refusal to understand Russia’s concerns even when they are rational. The image of Russia as a threat will spoil the future of bilateral relations long after both Trump and Putin become history. Just as the ghosts of the Cold War have been resurrected in the current controversies, I fear the ghosts of this present hostility toward Russia will arise again the next time a crisis in America calls for a scapegoat.