Last week Russia formally walked out of another arms control treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This treaty was widely regarded as one of the building blocks of post-Cold War European security but it now appears to be formally dead and buried. Indeed, Moscow announced it would not renegotiate this treaty though it might possibly discuss a new one. These steps actually embody the continuing disregard for international law that Moscow’s behavior, as opposed to its rhetoric, has regularly expressed. Despite a torrent of rhetoric about the need for states to observe international law, in fact Moscow unilaterally suspended its participation in the CFE treaty in 2007 thereby creating a category of behavior regarding treaties that does not exist and it has since then also been found to be violating the INF treaty of 1987. And its actions in Ukraine broke a whole series of international and bilateral treaties and agreements.
Not only does this behavior evince a return to Soviet times it also clearly undermines hopes for European and international security. And by doing so Moscow also undermines prospects for Russia’s long-term security as well. Certainly there is no plausible security rationale for this behavior. For a long time Moscow has been flooding the media with the cries that NATO is advancing to its borders, threatening it in all kinds of ways, and that the NATO spearhead force set up in reaction to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, itself a violation of a host of international and bilateral treaties and accords, somehow threatens Russia’s security and vital interests. The facts, however, totally disprove Moscow’s frenzied propaganda assault. In separate speeches in Washington in 2014 both the Norwegian and Estonian defense ministers conceded that in the Baltic theater Moscow has regional superiority. Not content with this superiority Moscow has conducted overflights and submarine incursions around Sweden, Finland, all of Europe from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, and towards the US. Since nobody knows whether or not it is carrying nuclear weapons in these planes these overflights raise immense potential dangers of unwanted and surprise military action leading to unpredictable scenarios. These flights also occur with transponders shut off in the vicinity of huge numbers of civilian flights creating the possibility of another air disaster like the Malaysian Airlines disaster of 2014 where Russian-backed rebels or Russian troops, using Russian weapons, shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine with immense loss of life.
Under the circumstances the only plausible reason for continuing this drumbeat of phony charges is to create a justification for militarizing the Russian state and economy both materially and, equally importantly, psychologically or cognitively. As Hitler, Lenin and Stalin did, and as described by Orwell, what Henry Adams called the systematic organization of hatred keeps society in a state of induced paranoia, violence, and uncertainty. Russians I know who grew up under Stalin have called that period one of collective psychosis and that clearly is returning. This campaign of permanent mobilization not only incites the domestic community to violence against dissidents but it feeds the psychological, institutional, and material needs of those sectors of the elite who have never left the Cold War mentally and would be adrift and out of power and money without an enemy image to justify their wealth and power.
While undoubtedly Moscow faces a terrorist threat in the North Caucasus, the fact is that despite the invasion of Ukraine, in 2014 many NATO members, including the US, actually reduced defense spending and NATO’s reaction and spearhead forces will not be ready at least until 2016. So there is no threat of a military nature coming from the West. Yet the militarization of the media and of mass psychology continues apace as does the pressure for ever more defense spending. One official even called demands for cutting defense spending as being tantamount to treason.
Thus what is now happening has profound consequences for the future not only in terms of habituating elements of society to violence at home and/or abroad but also in terms of creating a mentally deformed body politic. This systematic inculcation of hatred and war psychosis can only cripple efforts to think about what must be done to overcome the ongoing legacies of economic-technological backwardness, autocratic and unfettered police rule, paranoid delusions of threat, and compensatory assertions of imperial and spiritual grandeur that will enmesh Russia in endless international crises if not wars. Here we might remember that for reform to take place under Gorbachev and even earlier, under Alexander II, a campaign of Glasnost’ and of what Gorbachev called “New Thinking” had to be instituted from the top in order for people to begin casting aside all the delusions they had been spoon-fed for years. As Lincoln told the Congress in 1862 “As our situation is new we must think anew” and later that “we must disenthrall ourselves.” Russia too must begin to disenthrall itself. Russia’s militarization campaign at home and determination to act unilaterally abroad in a sovereign autocratic manner as its rulers do at home merely replicates the past and inhibits Russia from moving into the future while also enfeebling it economically and, paradoxically militarily.
In the wake of all the recent speculation concerning Putin’s absence we should remember that the discussions of the past few years about the so called “collective Putin” are not without merit. Putin may go but the mentality he and his entourage have stamped upon Russia, their refusal to depart the scene without violence, and the fact that they have come to believe their own propaganda, means that whatever comes after Putin will entail years of not only physical and economic reconstruction, but also of cognitive and psychological restructuring as well.