Why America’s Russia hysteria is dangerous

The US exaggerating and obsessing about foreign threats seems quite similar to what is happening in Russia.

Trump-Putin matrioshki
Language of the 1930s is coming back to US public discussions, writes Ragozin [File: AP/Dmitri Lovetsky]

Russian meddling may or may not have had an impact on the outcome of the US election in 2016, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has definitely succeeded in one thing: He has infected the United States with the same collective paranoia about the threat from an external enemy and the fifth column, which Russia has been suffering from for years.

Just like much of Europe these days (and Russia two decades ago), the US is succumbing to rabid illiberalism and a significant chunk of the movement against US President Donald Trump is part of that process, not a bulwark against it.

The “besieged fortress complex“, which the Kremlin’s propaganda has managed to implant in the minds of millions of Russians, is now very much part of the American psyche – particularly on the anti-Trump side.

The media’s favourite buzzword these days is “war”. It is being shouted at every corner by the likes of MSNBC’s anchor Rachel Maddow, who declared the disappearance of reporter’s question from the White House transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference “a form of information warfare” and hate-mongering lobbyist Molly McKew, who dubbed the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails a “new Pearl Harbour“.

There is even talk about war beyond “information warfare”. In one surreally apocalyptic piece for Politico, McKew wrote about an Estonian military officer’s dream about a bloody battle with the Russians in the streets of Tallinn, while Newsweek warned that NATO “could lose a war” with Russia. A reader’s letter published by the Chicago Tribune declared that the US is in fact “at war with Russia”.

This war-themed delirium is quite dangerous because hawks in the US and Russia desperately need a perpetual escalation to prove their point: that the other side is inherently aggressive and measures need to be taken in that regard. This, in turn, leads to the degradation of democracy and could potentially provoke a real conflict.

When you convince the entire population of a country that it is at war – even if, truly, there is none in sight – demands for democratic procedure, due process, deliberation and nuance vanish into thin air.

The Kremlin’s propaganda has succeeded in achieving that over and over again, like it did in 2014, when it persuaded most Russians and Crimeans that the annexation of the peninsula is an act of defence against the existential threat posed by Ukrainian nationalists and their Western backers.

Now, the US has been sucked into the whirlpool of collective hysteria and it is gradually adopting Stalin-esque language of “espionage” and “foreign agents”. The use of this new rhetoric was particularly spectacular in the case of Maria Butina – an unregistered Russian lobbyist who liaised between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russian Senator Aleksandr Torshin. The latter has been trying to replicate the NRA on Russian soil as part of the Kremlin’s campaign to promote conservative values.

On the other hand, as follows from Butina indictment, he hoped to revive Russo-American relations after the election of Donald Trump by establishing a backchannel of communication with the new administration via NRA. At least for now, it appears that Butina has been involved in what thousands of Americans are doing all around the world – notably in Russia and neighbouring countries – trying to establish links with like-minded political forces and influence the local political process.

Reading Butina’s indictment, you won’t find anyone stealing classified information, adopting false identities, employing sophisticated spying equipment or doing anything that feels remotely illegal, apart from not registering as a foreign agent under the 1938 Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) – a badly outdated anti-Nazi legislation. 

More recently, the Kremlin pointed to FARA  when it was criticised for adopting a foreign agent law and using it to persecute independent NGOsmonitoring elections or defending political activists in RussiaYet, Butina was charged not even under FARA, but under subsequent Cold War era legislation that applies vaguely worded terms such as “espionage-like activities” inviting for a great deal of arbitrariness in delivering judgement.

Of course Putin must now be feeling completely vindicated for reviving the Stalin-era phraseology, now that his adversary is using it infinitely more frequently than he could have ever allowed himself in Russia. Worse than that, Butina case gives the Kremlin a free rein in applying the same loose definition of espionage to opposition-minded Russians and those Americans who they have ever interacted with them. It also indeed kills the possibility of informal diplomacy, which has traditionally been the strongest side of American soft power on the post-Soviet space.

This entire phenomenon stems from the stubborn denial by some Americans that we live in a highly globalised world, where the domestic politics of old sovereign nation-states are considerably less important than transnational political alliances that unite people on either side of the global political barricade, which cuts through each nation. The alliance of Trump, Putin and the European far right is a prominent example.

They are also infinitely less important than transnational business interests which unite Russia’s oil mafia state with banking and real estate industries in Britain, Switzerland and the US.

The 1930s language simply fails to accurately define the actions of Russians politically involved in the US or Americans in the former USSR.

For example, Russia’s turn to largely fake conservatism and “traditional values”, undertaken by Putin in response to the mass protests of 2011-2012, was largely inspired by and copycatted from American Bible Belt conservatism.

Does this mean that when Jack Hanick – a founding producer of Fox News – set up the transnational media empire of the ultra-right, pro-Kremlin oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and helped to promote pro-Kremlin narratives in Russia and Europe, he was part of a conspiracy to keep Putin in power?

Was self-professed “information warfare expert” Molly McKew working as an “agent” when she “advised” ostensibly pro-Western Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat – on whose watch Kremlin-linked oligarchs laundered over $20bn through Moldova’s banking system? And for whom? The US? Russia? The mafia state?

The situation is even more surreal with Paul Manafort who is facing charges of working as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of – no, not Russia or Putin – but Ukraine. Manafort’s work in Ukraine was largely aimed at steering the country towards the EU until his boss, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, abruptly suspended the process of European integration in favour of a union with Russia. In that case, whose interests was Manafort defending, apart from his own financial ones?

And then there is George Soros, who hired Soviet dissident Gleb Pavlovsky to lead one of his key civil society projects when he visited the USSR just before its collapse in 1990. In the 2000s, Pavlovsky went on to become a key architect of Putin’s regime and the Kremlin’s main spin doctor.

So following the logic of the New York Magazine’s article alleging that Trump was recruited by the KGB during a 1987 visit to Russia, should we suspect Soros of being a secret Putin ally?

The texture of modern global society, where no country – apart from North Korea – enjoys a hermetic political isolation, renders this rhetoric about “foreign agents” and conspiracies both irrelevant and misleading.

The first step towards creating a new language that reflects our reality is to stop imagining the world as a set of separate and independent nation-states and realise that there are global political, economic and cultural dimensions that trump obsolete national divisions and alliances.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.