On Reaching a Level of Total Distrust and Suspicion

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation and former head of the Federal Security Service , FSB, gave an interview to the newspaper “Kommersant” with extremely harsh assessments of U.S. policy toward Russia. Such assessments are routine for the daily anti-American discourse. But in public statements by officials of such high rank, they are rare, practically unprecedented, and eloquently evidence the degree of tension that prevails in relations between Moscow and Washington.

In particular, Patrushev said that the U.S. “would very much like it if Russia didn’t exist at all. As a country.” He supported his thesis with a reference to a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who supposedly said that neither the Far East nor Siberia belongs to Russia.

In the “original,” the sentence sounded a bit different: Albright called it “unfair” that a single state controls the riches of Siberia. But no one can find the English-language source of the statement. It’s a so-called fake news story, the invention of anti-American journalism from the 2000s. This pseudo-quote acquired the status of truth on the Runet because it conformed (and conforms) to widespread beliefs about Washington’s guile and its desire to destroy Russia. It’s a sort of analogue to the “Dulles’ Plan” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Nikolai Patrushev’s reference to fictitious quotations is symptomatic. It bears witness to the fact that distrust of and hostility toward the West, and especially toward the U.S., is becoming for the Russian government the chief motivating factor, and both facts and myths alike are suitable for the public justification of such relations.

Hostility doesn’t require accuracy. Patrushev, for example, referring to the words of Victoria Nuland, claims that the U.S. spent $5 billion to organize a coup in Ukraine. Nuland did, in fact, quote that figure—in December 2013 at an international business conference in Washington. Only it referred to the sum that the U.S. had provided Ukraine “for the development of democratic institutions, civil society, and good governance” since 1991. But the real meaning of Nuland’s words is suppressed or ignored by Russia’s “patriotic” journalists and representatives of the ruling elite.

It becomes clear that Putin’s allegory with the Russian bear – they want to knock out his teeth, pull out his claws, and put him on a chain – didn’t pop up incidentally or spontaneously at all. It signaled that the difference between the language of official policy and diplomacy and widespread beliefs about the enemy, who wants to dismember Russia and seize its resources, is fading.

Nikolai Patrushev’s interview outlines the frame of reference in which the Russian government intends to act. The U.S. wants to destroy Russia. It is de facto an enemy with whom there’s practically nothing to talk about until it changes its mind. Europe is a separate topic. The Europeans are weak and, according to Patrushev, “quite will-less.” Moscow’s task is to appeal to this will and conscience. Moscow’s strategic objective is to gain respect of its interests.

For supporters of normal relations with the West, Patrushev’s statements are a wake-up call. Extremely harsh rhetoric becomes possible if the elite conceive of anti-Westernism not as a maneuver but as a strategic choice and the developments causing the conflict as the point of no return. And German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen’s assertion yesterday that it’s best to speak with Russia “from a position of strength” points to the fact that the process of escalation works both ways, and getting out of this nosedive is extremely difficult.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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