On Thursday, the US Congress passed a bill that in effect ranks Russia along with Iran and North Korea as US top enemy and limits President Donald Trump‘s ability to lift sanctions against Moscow. New tougher sanctions were also voted in. Some analysts have characterised this latest development as the return of the Cold War, while pro-Kremlin commentators have made analogies with the McCarthyism era – both are major exaggerations.
But the new legislation is important because it makes Russia again a formal enemy of the United States exactly 30 years after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed a breakthrough treaty on eliminating short and medium-range nuclear missiles, putting an end to the arms race.
Russians themselves would be surprised to hear that their country has been recognised as an enemy only now. In the imaginary world which Russian state TV projects into the heads of Russian citizens, there have been two major world powers competing all along – America (and its submissive satellite – the EU) and Russia, which stepped back on its feet thanks to Vladimir Putin. If someone told Russians that up to 2016 the US and Western Europe did not even notice Russia, they would take this as an insult and refuse to believe it.
For a long time, this image of the world which Russian media was propagating was seriously schizophrenic. While TV channels were broadcasting vicious anti-West propaganda, Russia was participating in joint military exercises with NATO, was allowing the US to use its bases for the war in Afghanistan, was hosting the G8 summit in St Petersburg and was pursuing WTO membership. But gradually the imaginary world in Russian domestic propaganda started becoming reality – Russia started sinking deeper and deeper into economic and political isolation, and eventually, the West came to consider it a threat again. It is a bit like the plot of the film Wag the Dog, in which a war in Albania made up to save a failing presidency in the US turns into a real one.
But while in Russia, reality and a media-crafted image of the world are gradually converging, in the West they are diverging. In the US and Europe, it seems, they indeed believe that Russia must be addressed as a serious threat, like the USSR in the past. But is Russia really a threat to the West?
As outrageous as Russia's attempts to interfere in US elections may be, they had very little effect. What is worrying about the 2016 US election is not external interference, but the fact that millions of American citizens blindly accepted Trump's primitive populist slogans.
Any comparison between Russia and the USSR today is comical. The Soviet Union was a poor country, but it regardless was the leader of the socialist camp. USSR satellites and allies made up half of the world. Today, Russia’s GDP makes up only 1.5 percent of the world’s and its allies number exactly 10 countries (as per the vote on the UN resolution on the annexation of Crimea). Two of those are former Soviet countries (Armenia and Belarus) and the remaining eight are Bolivia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria and Sudan. The one thing the 10 have in common is massive poverty and internal instability problems.
Russia is behaving, like before, more aggressively on the international scene. But the influence of a country is measured in its ability to achieve its political goals. And what has Russia achieved in recent times?
Let’s take for example the cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns supposedly organised by the Kremlin. The fingerprints of hackers linked to GRU, the Russian military intelligence directorate, were found in the attack on French President Emmanuel Macron’s email and in the attempt to break into voting machines in the US. The same hackers are also accused of attempts of breaking into government servers or other major political institutions in almost all other European countries. It is also known that these hackers have been engaging with the Kremlin’s “troll factories” which spread disinformation on social media networks. But is there any evidence that these cyber campaigns have any effect?
A typical example is the elections in France. Hackers successfully broke into Macron’s email and trolls actively spread fake evidence of offshore accounts, while his opponent Marine Le Pen was backed by Russia. And how much did this help her?
In the US, they are still complaining about Russia’s intervention in their elections. Russia, of course, tried to intervene, but all fake news that was spread in the US before the elections (such as Pizzagate and the story of Hillary Clinton’s “sickness”) were made up by US conspiracy theorists who didn’t need any support from the Kremlin to spread them. Hackers could not really take control of voting machines on a large scale. And as for the meetings of Donald Trump’s election campaign staff with suspicious Kremlin-linked individuals, did they actually help him? Even if Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya passed on any information on Hillary Clinton allegedly receiving “illegal donations” for her campaign, it clearly did not amount to much, or else Trump would have used it as a “kompromat”.
As outrageous as Russia’s attempts to interfere in US elections may be, they had very little effect. What is worrying about the 2016 US election is not external interference, but the fact that millions of American citizens blindly accepted Trump’s primitive populist slogans.
In the end, did Russia benefit in any way from Donald Trump’s victory? Clearly, relations have deteriorated even further and Russia has received no dividends out of its interventions in Ukraine and Syria. In fact, sanctions are getting worse.
It is the same situation with many other countries where Russia tried to interfere with domestic politics. In Central and Eastern Europe, and in the Balkans, Russia is actively sponsoring far-right parties. But despite these financial transactions, Russia has not gained popular approval in any of these regions. In Montenegro, GRU tried to organise a coup so it stops the country’s accession to NATO. The coup failed and in fact strengthened pro-NATO attitudes among Montenegrins. Their parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of NATO membership.
Vladimir Putin might be very happy about appearing on the covers of international magazines more often than The Beatles at the peak of their career, but we have to admit that he doesn’t really deserve all that attention. Russia will not be a real threat to the West as long as all of its institutions (including military and intelligence) are corrupt to the core, as long as their employees are buying villas in Biarritz and sending their children to British and US universities, and as long as its economy depends on its oil and gas being sold to Europe.
Actually, Russia gets to understand the extent of its dependence on the West very soon, when Trump signs Congress’ bill into law and the new sanctions hit Russian energy companies and their projects in Europe. It is quite ironic that Trump is in a way forced to sign this bill very much because of the growing accusations of collusion with Russia.
By forcing the West to believe that it constitutes a real threat, Russia, in the end, might face a very real response. And that the Kremlin will not enjoy.
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.