America’s Russia Blind Spot

In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) asked the witnesses whether she should be worried about an anti-Hillary Clinton robocall she once received, which featured a woman speaking with what sounded to her like a Slavic accent.

There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.

But the expert witnesses at Thursday’s hearing – called in to testify to a bi-partisan committee on the threats from Russian disinformation and influence campaigns – are part of a trend that is turning worry into the kind of hysteria that makes a solution harder to find. After confirming that Rep. Moore should be very concerned indeed, independent ‘strategy expert’ Molly McKew went on to accuse Moscow-based American correspondents – and even American graduate students studying Russia – of being tainted by a pro-Russian bias.

Too many Russian friends and colleagues living in America – immigrants and American citizens, professionals, journalists, academics, all of them ardent opponents of Putin – keep their heads down and voices hushed in public. Too many American analysts feel compelled to keep their dissenting opinions to themselves. I have spent a decade and a half explaining to Russian politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens that the knee-jerk American Russophobia of the Cold War was dead and buried, only to see it resurrected.

You can argue – as I would not – that these are reasonable prices to pay in times of threat and strife. You can argue that security requires sacrifice. You can rest easy in your conviction that America’s democracy can withstand this self-inflicted assault on the presumption of innocence, on freedom of speech and on basic human dignity, although I am not so sure. But the claim that it strengthens our security is weak. No rational decisions about the defense of our national security can be made in an environment in which some people are afraid to speak, and others are afraid to listen.

We can have a reasonable debate about whether Sputnik should be declared a ‘foreign agent’ (as the Department of Justice announced it would), or about whether universities should be accepting donations from oligarchs (as a growing chorus of activists argue) – but not if we can’t distinguish between an autocratic government and tens of millions of people with vaguely Slavic accents. This shouldn’t be difficult.

If we want to know whether Russia is bent on world domination or merely angling for advantage in its neighborhood – or, more likely, something in between – we need to train our eyes for nuance and subtlety.

If we want to make good choices about how much treasure to spend on defense – or where to risk the lives of our women and men in uniform – we need to focus on the barely discernible shades of gray, not on the easy illusions of a black-and-white worldview.

Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities? Can we learn to trust the insight of people who have spent their lives studying the country’s language, culture, people, economy and politics, without accusing them of having been somehow contaminated by proximity to their subject?

If we don’t re-learn these basic skills – and re-learn them quickly, because the threat is real and isn’t going away – will we be faster or slower to respond the next time Russia decides to annex a piece of its neighbor’s territory? Can analysts safely isolated from Russian influence tell us whether we should put tanks in the Baltics or spies in the Balkans? If we listen only to the voices in Washington, and not in Moscow, how will we know whether the leader who eventually rises to replace Putin will be better or worse?

Somehow, the word ‘understand’ has become derogatory when applied to Russia, as though ‘understanding’ implies sympathy (and as though there were something inherently wrong with sympathy). But let’s concede the point, for the sake of progress. If we don’t want to understand Russia, can we at least comprehend it?

The foregoing text has been submitted to the opinion editors of a range of major publications over the last several days. If you’re an opinion editor and would like to publish it, I’m happy to pull it from the blog. If you’re a reader and you believe that this needs to reach a broader audience than this blog can afford, please distribute it.

3 thoughts on “America’s Russia Blind Spot

  1. Lots of this sounds great. I absolutely agree that broad, knee-jerk suspicion isn’t helpful nor is accusing anyone with a different point of view of being in cahoots with Putin. The problem, clearly, is not the Russia-expert who is clear-eyed about Russian foreign policy goals and tactics, but wants to inform the debate when it goes off track. But I study at a university renowned for its Russian Studies programs and there is a large component of them who have become just as radicalized AGAINST any criticism of Russia as much as you are describing critics of Russia losing their minds. It thus makes it very hard to have a reasoned discourse with a group of people who think they have to disagree in the most vehement terms with any criticism of Russia and who think that it is a rhetorical necessity to “balance” the debate by pointing out how the west is “just as bad” as Russia. This group would not agree with any of the stuff you said at the beginning of your post about Russian actions in the west and often go down conspiratorial rabbit-holes about the western deep state. They think of themselves as persecuted and can’t see the difference between today’s situation and McCarthyism. I guess my point is that I think this group is doing a disservice to informed debate when they deny certain realities or won’t accept that Russian sponsorship of far-right politics might be a bit disconcerting to progressives in the west. The situation can’t be diagnosed as just the innocent, rational Russian experts being maligned by a rabid public–there’s also a very bitter subset of Russian expert who thinks that the rest of the country hates Russia with no good reason. I think it’s important for the Russian-studies community to recognize they have a problem with this group as well.

  2. Unfortunately on the Russian side there are many people who also can’t seem to distinguish between the regime and the nation. Indeed, the regime itself promotes the idea that Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin. Moreover, just because some Russians are anti-Putin (few are truly pro-Putin in the sense that they hold a deep-seated conviction that he is great and they are willing to die for him), doesn’t mean they don’t have an imperialist or chauvinist mindset. You can see this in the way Navalny talks about Uzbeks, or how some Russians talk about the Tatar language in Tatarstan. What Russians need is an identity renaissance, the creation of a Russian identity that isn’t tied to empire and domination.

  3. Pingback: Congress Now Wants Twitter to Explain How That Covington Teens Video Went Viral - Tech Zone News

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