Russian President Vladimir Putin, responding to a journalist’s question about the intention of the U.S. to respond to cyber attacks, stated, “What, don’t we know that U.S. officials are spying on everyone and listening in on everyone? ... Billions of dollars are spent on it. The NSA is working away, the CIA is working away, along with other agencies. There’s evidence and there are even full confessions. And they don’t just spy on their potential adversaries but on their allies, too, including their closest allies.”
Then, elaborating on the subject, the head of state added that even journalists themselves are “an object of exploitation by the relevant agencies.” According to Putin, they’ve gotten used to having certain information, exchanging it over the phone, and televising it. “All of it is systematized, compiled, and analyzed. That’s what the NSA is up to,” the president summarized. American intelligence agencies, according to him, are violating national legislation and don’t invoke the courts, unlike Russian intelligence agencies.
Several years ago, it was possible to listen to recordings of the Russian opposition’s phone conversations on the Runet. The relevant equipment, by law, is under the control of the FSB. Who gave the okay to wiretap the opposition? Was a court order obtained? To this day, these questions remain unanswered.
In any case, the Russian president talks about American intelligence agencies’ global control. This is a relatively new dimension to the discourse of the Russian government, which, by all appearances, is once again rethinking its role in the world. In recent years, we’ve witnessed several turns of such rethinking. In particular, Russia aspired to the role of leader of conservatism worldwide. The implication was that societal forces and political elites who defend, for example, a traditional understanding of the family and marriage or the notion of religion’s significant and even leading role in the life of society should rally around it.
Following the Crimea affair and the imposition of sanctions against Russia, an emphasis was put on sovereignty. Vladimir Putin, conversing with journalists in Goa, managed to return to this motif: The U.S. imposed restrictions on our country not because of what happened in Ukraine, but because our independence and growing influence in the world sticks in its craw, and it would use any convenient excuse to punish us. It’s worth ascribing Russian politicians’ statements about the dependence of Europe, which in their opinion serves U.S. foreign policy interests, to this very rhetoric.
Now the Russian government, by the look of things, is trying to be in the vanguard of the fight against a worldwide Big Brother. Apparently by “former employees” from whom, according to Vladimir Putin, information about the NSA’s work was obtained, the Russian president means Edward Snowden. In the Western world, Snowden is becoming one of the symbols in the fight against the excessive power of intelligence agencies and total surveillance, which run counter to the notion of privacy and the need to exercise control over government agencies.
Russia may try to use the Snowden affair to expand the anti-American consensus from marginal and semi-marginal politicians to the broader public, for whom interference in private life is unacceptable and the symbolic hacktivist is more endearing than the government’s surveillance machine. As a matter of fact, anti-Americanism is not a Russian prerogative: it’s prevalent in the West. Hence the sympathy Snowden or Julian Assange evokes. That anti-Americanism is difficult to convert into a pro-Russian position is quite another matter. The political elites are thinking in terms of tactical alliances, whereas for rank-and-file fighters against Big Brother, the Russian government is no better than the American government.