Slouching Towards Hysteria

July 8, 2015
Russian military exercises on June 25, 2015. | Photograph: Tass / Barcroft Media

The late Adam Ulam, one of the giants of Soviet and Russian studies, wrote in his biography of Stalin that while Russian history is tragic and glorious, it also is preposterous. Under Putin this quality has come to the fore as he and his trolls dutifully stoke what Henry Adams called the systematic organization of hatred. In the last week alone Russia’s Procurator General called for an investigation of the legality of the Supreme Soviet’s acknowledgement of the Baltic States independence in 1991 — a move that could not have been spontaneous but ordered from above. This move could easily be seen as providing a legal justification for an attempt to replicate the Crimean or Donbass operations in the Baltic, i.e. an act of war. The results of this preposterous move were not long in coming in. It only confirmed Russia’s reputation for being ominous while also making the government a laughing stock — never a wise move for a dictatorship. And government spokesmen tried to walk it back. But the damage was done

Now Alexei Pushkov, Chairman of the Duma’s Committee on International Relations, is calling for the Duma to enact sanctions upon Finland because it refused to allow the Speaker of the Duma, Lev Naryshkin, one of Putin’s closest confidants, to come to Finland, though the country hosted John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This further demonstrates Pushkov’s “expert” knowledge of Finnish affairs since in November 2014 he reported that Finland was willing to end sanctions on Russia. But beyond Pushkov’s personal chauvinism, hysteria, and ignorance, this move reflects not only the preposterous and hysterical streak in Russian policy, but the idea inculcated by Putin that Russia has a right to interfere in other states’ affairs but those countries do not have the right to full sovereignty or to respond in kind to systematic Russian threats like those Moscow has repeatedly made against Finland. In other words, Russia is special and answers to nobody.

Yet this glorious state had to admit at the same time that it has no way of preventing its people from joining ISIS, a revealing indicator of the ideological futility of Putin’s domestic project. While this threat is very real, it does betray a delusional view of the world on the part of Russian policymakers who are now insistently calling for Western cooperation with Russia against ISIS. Given Moscow’s continuing unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad, whose butchery and war crimes helped galvanize the formation of ISIS, this appeal to the West is all the more striking an indicator of just how preposterous Moscow’s foreign policy claims are — and not only in the Middle East. For there to be real cooperation with the West, Moscow would have to renounce its claims in Ukraine as well as its “gains” there that have come at the cost of impoverishing Russia. This, obviously, is most unlikely at least in the foreseeable future.

A sense of mounting hysteria about imaginary enemies is also associated with the preposterous nature of Russian politics. Indeed, hysteria and preposterousness feed off of each other. Thus we now see at home a renewed offensive against NGOs who are supposedly foreign agents determined to overthrow Russia, etc. Meanwhile in the real world, federal regions like Novgorod, a relatively wealthy region, have already defaulted on their debts and analysts like Standard & Poor’s believe that more regional defaults are likely. These defaults are directly traceable to Putin’s policies and the invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, not only are more defaults likely, future defaults are very likely to occur in poverty-stricken areas that depend on a high level of continuing federal subsidies and are duly accompanied therefore by extensive corruption.

This point applies in particular to the North Caucasus where a Jihadi war has continued uninterruptedly against the regime for 20 years. Despite splits in the Jihadi movement and fearsome repression, Russia clearly has no idea how to deal with Islamic terrorism and its admission that it cannot stop people from flocking to ISIS represents an admission of this failure.

Yet the regime continues manufacturing hysteria against imaginary enemies like Estonia, Finland, and the West, all the while neglecting the real threats to Russia. Putin’s statements to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that despite real problems the economy will revive betray a similar detachment from reality, and demonstrate an ingrained tendency to make unbelievable claims that perhaps Kremlin elites, isolated as they are by their own propaganda, actually believe.

Under the circumstances — where 20% of those polled report that they can only afford the bare necessities of life, a figure much higher than the 7% of those polled who made similar reports in 2009 at the trough of that global economic crisis — it is an open question how long the reign of the hysterical and preposterous can last. Russia’s economy has practically not grown since 2008 and thus is falling further behind its real and potential partners.

If economic performance is the true basis for enjoying the status of a great power, as Putin and his supporters clutch like a mantra (or fetish), then Russia’s days as a great power are numbered. Indeed, a dispassionate analysis of Russia that is free of the hysterical and preposterous claims made by Putin’s puppets can only conclude that the greatest threat to the security of Russia is the continuation of the current regime.