LONDON • Washington is seized by an anti-Russia fever, bordering on paranoia.
No less than three separate government or congressional probes are now looking into alleged Russian meddling in the United States’ last presidential election. And not a day passes by without further revelations about the allegedly nefarious links between the White House and Russian officials.
The anti-Russia pitch from Washington is now so pervasive that even if, say, a coffee-making machine were to break down in an office on Capitol Hill, an accusing finger is sure to be pointed at some Russian spy trying to undermine American democracy. Decades ago, Americans used to be spooked by allegations of Soviet infiltration: the famous “Reds under the Bed” scare. Today’s Russians are no longer red but, if most of US legislators are to be believed, they continue to lurk under each American’s bed.
Like all public frenzies of this kind, the current tendency to detect a Russian hand in every American domestic difficulty has its ludicrous side. Still, what is now unfolding in Washington is deadly serious. For it is virtually certain that the presidency of Mr Donald Trump will be marked forever by suspicions of alleged dealings with Russia, regardless of whether any of the wild accusations currently made against Mr Trump and his associates are ever proven.
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And, if politicians in Washington continue down this path, they risk locking Russia and the US in a confrontation every bit as dangerous and as intractable as that which existed during the Cold War.
WHAT WENT BEFORE
This turn of events is both curious and largely unexpected, since politicians in Washington were among the first in the Western world to stop obsessing about Russia after the end of the Cold War.
To be sure, there were moments of tension over the past quarter of a century when US-Russian interests collided, or when American presidents simply brushed Russia aside. But for every such episode of confrontation there are countless other examples of the US extending the hand of genuine friendship to Russia. Mr Bill Clinton stuck by the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin right until the end and long after it become clear that Mr Yeltsin was an alcoholic wreck who could hardly walk straight, never mind run a country.
Mr George W. Bush famously claimed to have looked President Vladimir Putin in the eye and to “have found him very straightforward and trustworthy”. And then, there was Mr Barack Obama who came into office believing in a “reset” in his relations with Russia and had his Secretary of State – a certain lady called Mrs Hillary Clinton – present the Russians with a symbolic plastic button bearing the word “reset” in the Russian language.
Mr Obama’s gimmick backfired immediately; his officials simply chose the wrong Russian word. But Mr Obama’s predecessors also ultimately lived to regret their pro-Russia gestures, not because these were particularly gauche, but more because they all failed to achieve their objective; US-Russian relations nosedived.
Much of the blame for this lies with Moscow itself. For the Russians never appreciated these US gestures; what Russia demanded instead is that Moscow should be treated as equal with the US and that Russia should be entitled to recreate the sphere of influence which the Soviet Union enjoyed in Europe.
The US wisely ignored both demands for a simple reason: Russia is no longer a superpower and any attempt to indulge Moscow’s fantasies would have catastrophic results for global security. Still, the result was an escalating US-Russian confrontation which started with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and continued with the war in Ukraine in 2014.
Some have suggested that this should not concern the US. But Mr Obama, who followed this advice by ignoring Russia’s carve-up of Georgia, discovered that this merely encouraged Mr Putin to carve up Ukraine a few years later. Mr Obama also accepted that the Russians should have a free hand in carving up Syria, but that did not improve US-Russian relations either.
THE WEAKER SIDE
The truth is that, for President Putin, confrontation with the West is not the exception but the rule, and since Russia is by far the weaker side in this game, most of what the Russians do entails secret destabilisation and subversion operations.
Russia is not the only country to have interfered in the elections of other countries; the Americans have also done so repeatedly. But the Russians have engaged in this more than most, and have elevated such tactics to an art; it is by now largely forgotten that the Cold War began in the 1940s because of Russian moves to falsify elections in Europe.
Seen from this historic perspective, therefore, the only real surprise about Russia’s involvement in the US elections is the brazen nature of Moscow’s operations and the relative ease by which Russia was able to impact the US presidential debate.
That happened for two main reasons: first: because the US intelligence community was simply unprepared for such a Russian move; and, second, because few US officials were aware of the complex and large web of friendly Western businessmen and politicians which Russia has succeeded in nurturing over decades.
That is not because Russia has the power of attraction or is regarded as an envious example of success; few Westerners dream of sending their kids to Russian schools or universities, few would be seen in public in the company of Russian officials and fewer still would either buy property or park their money in Russia. Nor is it because all these Westerners with pro-Russian sympathies are necessarily Moscow’s spies.
Instead, the admiration for Moscow within political circles on both the far left and far right in the West is due to the fact that Russia is seen as the only power willing to stand up to the smug Western political establishment, the only country ruled by a president who is a “real man” riding bare-chested on Siberia’s steppes, a person who cares nothing for political correctness and who says publicly that international law is only for fools or the limp-wristed, that it is better to kill some people wholesale rather than negotiate with them, that a woman’s place is at home in the kitchen, and that gays are best strung up from trees.
Whether Russia’s secret operations on American soil affected the US electoral result is, by now, a moot point. What is significant is the fact that some of Mr Trump’s closest advisers did come from this pro-Russia circle, that Mr Trump seemed to be welcoming Russia’s efforts to undermine the electoral campaign of Mrs Clinton, his opponent, and that, in what will surely go down as a monumental political blunder, President Trump gave the impression that he trusts Russia’s denial of any involvement in the US election more than the conclusions of no fewer than 11 of America’s own intelligence agencies which argued otherwise.
The result is an anti-Russia frenzy which has now reached ridiculous proportions and which is accompanied by the usual American media mix of hype and ignorance. Over the past week alone, Time magazine attempted to illustrate Russian influence in Washington by publishing a photograph of an Orthodox Christian cathedral on top of the White House, the CNN television network referred to Moscow’s historic Kremlin towers as “minarets”, while a reporter for The New York Times dismissed Russia as a “Cyrillic autocracy”, an idiotic and irrelevant reference to the alphabet of the Russian language.
But as silly as this may be, the hunt for Russians under each Washington bed is unlikely to stop now. It is fuelled by deliberate leaks from America’s intelligence services, which are outraged by the conduct of President Trump, and amplified by the US media which under normal circumstances would not trust anything coming from spy agencies but is now busily lapping up every morsel of information fed to it by spooks.
It is also whipped up by Democratic politicians who would much rather blame Moscow for their electoral defeat rather than admit their own mistakes, and by mainstream Republicans who are outraged by Mr Trump’s meteoric rise. One does not need to be a Washington insider to realise that any campaign which has the media, spy agencies and most of the political establishment united on one side has all the making of a tsunami storm; the only unknowns are how long it will last, and how much havoc this Second Cold War will wreak.
When the history of these tumultuous days is finally written, the conclusion would be that the Russians miscalculated by not realising what they were taking on when they interfered in the US presidential election, but that the Americans also miscalculated in their response.
In short, precisely the same sort of miscalculations which led to the First Cold War.