On the same day that Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that the billions of rubles discovered in Colonel Dmitriy Zakharchenko’s apartment were intended to finance a Russian Maydan and had been delivered directly from the United States, the Justice Ministry adopted a decision to include Ekovakhta on the list of foreign agents. The environmentalists, who had traveled to Krasnodarskiy Kray to fight fires, were accused of arson and de facto compelled to wind up their activity. Previously the Levada Center had also been deemed to be a foreign agent. And the State Department was named as an interested party in the campaign against the general procurator and as a sponsor of Aleksey Navalnyy and the FBK [Navalnyy’s Foundation for Combating Corruption] — the Russian authorities are «investing» increasingly actively in the anti-American trend. But this could backfire: America will gradually become less and less frightening and more and more attractive, although it is nevertheless never going to be loved.
The article in Komsomolskaya Pravda is presented as if it is backed up by a big journalistic investigation as a result of which a deep secret is being revealed to readers. Its author, Dmitriy Steshin, sets out a robust logical sequence: Investigators are remaining silent about the provenance of the «mindblowing» almost 9 billion rubles, and journalists are advancing untenable theories. Admittedly Steshin himself demolishes these theories: For example, that it was stolen Nota-Bank money. «Banks do not work with such cash sums,» he asserts, without bothering to provide a banal explanation of just what it is that banks transfer to ATMs. Might this even has been corrupt money, Steshin retorts: Where in Russia do we see such astronomical bribes?
Admittedly it was only recently, for example, that the FSB [Federal Security Service] arrested Investigations Committee of Russia generals for allegedly accepting a bribe of $5 million to release Shakro Junior. This is only a single episode, but it is possible to notionally rack up quite a few over several years. Indeed can the author of the article fail to recall a recent interview by Aleksandr Korzhakov talking about truckloads of cash being delivered to Igor Shuvalov’s house? The result is a strange logic: There are corrupt officials, but there are no bribes. So, if we were to follow this logic, Zakharchenko’s apartments were also purchased by American sponsors. Admittedly the Americans shot themselves in the foot, it transpires. «The cash dollars were wrapped in a yellow package — the factory-supplied money wrapper used by one of the Federal Reserve’s 12 American printing plants,» Komsomolskaya Pravda writes, citing some «vigilant» blogger.
In precisely this way, with a stroke of a pro-regime journalist’s pen, that the population is presented with a picture of the State Department penetrating deep into Russian regime structures as it seeks to destroy the state from within and the foundations of stability.
A history of hatred
The theory of the State Department wanting to destroy Russia has broad social support and powerful political backing from the conservative part of the elite, especially since the latter has started to spell out its priorities on the domestic policy agenda. There are both objective and speculative foundations for this. On the one hand, the Putin era is distinguished by a return to geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the United States: Russia has demanded recognition of its exclusive rights in the post-Soviet area and also noninterference in internal affairs. On the other hand, the Russian elite’s impotence in its attempts to win respect in the world arena has led to a radicalization of the anti-American mentality. The contention that «America is trying to achieve world hegemony» has gradually been replaced by the contention that «America is planning to destroy Russia.» There is a fundamental difference: The Russian regime saw pro-American interests as the basis of the former and sees anti-Russian interests as the basis of the latter.
Originally, as the confrontation increased, anti-American rhetoric was employed primarily as part of foreign policy logic. Society was enlisted as an ideological ally of the regime in the dialogue with Washington and, in that situation, was rather a resource that strengthened the Kremlin’s position, making it historically sounder and more correct.
The siloviki have always been adherents of the argument that «the State Department is preparing the destruction of Russia,» and as the years have passed they have started to turn from a peripheral force into a vanguard force, particularly on issues linked to security. The problem is that «security» as a value suddenly acquired infinite dimensions. From a narrow military-strategic topic it turned into an everyday reality. Russia’s security is threatened by sociological centers, environmentalists, rights activists, oppositionists, journalists, and also Western food products, Turkish resorts, foreign technology and the Internet, and investments and grants. There are enemies all around, and there is no longer any need to try to work out where the State Department is.
Enemies all around
The abuses of anti-American and simultaneously military rhetoric are gradually producing several paradoxes that are making the Russian regime less and less credible and convincing. Paradox one: Timetabled war. Anti-Western rhetoric reached its peak in 2013-2015, before the Syrian campaign began and Russia faced the challenge of trying to reach agreement with the United States in order to break out of the crisis. It was here that a dual agenda emerged: On the one hand, the flywheel that had been cranked up for a «US war against Russia» and, on the other, partnership, to sustain which the country’s most progressive elite forces were deployed. Anti-American speculation now developed not so much against the notional State Department, with which the Russian head of the Foreign Ministry is in negotiations day and night (and Putin talks approvingly of John Kerry), as against internal enemies. It transpires that the Americans cannot be trusted, but sometimes they can. There must be no retreating ever, but it has to be done if it is very important.
This leads onto the second paradox: The enemy without has become the enemy within. This is a very interesting transformation that few people have yet gotten to the bottom of. In the Russian regime’s traditional anti-American rhetoric «foreign agents» (in the broadest political rather than juridical sense) have always constituted instruments mobilized in the interests of external players (meaning the United States) to destabilize the situation in Russia. They are a technique for infiltrating the country. But now the «State Department» as a tool has started to acquire subjective forms of its own. It has suddenly started to turn into part of the regime itself.
Note that it is no longer some little-known rights activists and oppositionists but an MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] colonel and deputy chief of the main anticorruption administration who are being declared to be the implementer of the United States’ revolutionary plans in Russia. Questions arise here to which the «system» is not providing an answer: Did the minister know about it? And the FSB? And what about the all-powerful Putin? If they did know, why did they not react, and if they did not know, then to just what extent is the Russian state vulnerable? And is the regime capable of being effective at all?
Another even more indicative example is the Vesti report on Operation Drozh [Trepidation] which states that Browder and Navalnyy killed Magnitsky with the aid of their «proxies in the penitentiary system.» One of the most discredited oppositionists in the eyes of the population is endowed with the potential to wield mega-influence, while the state is reduced to a weak and rotten organism. At the same time no official investigations are being conducted into these «proxies in the penitentiary system,» which logically raises other questions: Is it possible that the State Department has already bought up FSB generals too? There are indeed few people investigating the nuances of the silovik wars: Generals with crates of cash are flashing up on TV screens one after another.
A third participant — multifaceted, powerful, and elusive — is manifestly emerging in the world-view system of Russian-US confrontation: the «corrupt traitor» running amok by no means outside the boundaries of the establishment arena but in the innermost part of the state hierarchy. America is a long way away, whereas these people are right here. And the war against «corrupt traitors» is being waged totally unconvincingly for some reason.
And here we come to the third paradox: The rotation of natural enemies. Andrey Kolesnikov has written about this, and it refers to the routinization of a military mentality, which is gradually becoming all-pervasive. To begin with (until 2004) it was exclusively the United States that was regarded as Russia’s «enemy.» The post-Soviet republics, the countries of West and East Europe, Japan, and other «unfortunates» to whom Moscow tried in vain to extend a helping hand buckled under the United States’ imperial ambitions. But then it was not just that the number of enemies increased. They started to multiply, to develop, and to be born and die depending on the foreign policy climate. The Baltic republics, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine again, Egypt, Turkey. Whenever a foreign policy conflict situation arose Russian society was mobilized as a resource to strengthen the Russian regime’s position in bringing pressure to bear on the «enemy» or «rival.» But when historically aggregated, such a number of campaigns weakens focus, diverts attention, and lessons trust. Imagine a military detachment whose commander constantly changes direction, urging his men to proudly lay down their lives in a struggle against first one enemy, then another. And tomorrow yesterday’s enemy may simply turn out to be an ally.
But the possibility that maybe America is not so scary after all is a question that arises as a result of such campaigns. And this is confirmed by the pollsters. In the last two years Russians have started to have a more positive attitude toward the United States. The proportion of respondents with a positive attitude toward the Americans has increased from 18 to 25 percent, while the proportion with a negative attitude has fallen from 74 to 66 percent, the results of an August Levada Center poll showed. Negative attitudes peaked in 2014, after which gradual adjustments began. The Levada Center sociologists simultaneously noted that the United States is seen less and less as a threat.
It will be increasingly tricky to consolidate Russian society on the basis of anti-American rhetoric. First, the regime is instigating too many scare stories, excessively broadening the focus on sources of external and internal dangers. Second, the system, which until 2016 was cultivating stability, is now producing conflict after conflict, but now within itself: Intra-elite showdowns have also become a means of political survival for the apparatus. And this is provoking a feeling of instability and unpredictability and also — and this is extremely important — of a loss of control and weakness on the part of the state. This kind of regime may be sustainable for a long time yet, but only as an inevitable evil that is itself becoming a source of threats.
Third and finally, positive mobilization is being replaced by a negative version, and the negative version is extending to literally every sphere of ordinary people’s lives. Television is telling them not only about the «State Department» and «junta» but also about corrupt officials, thieving governors (who only recently were Putin people!), billionaire siloviki, and foreign agents. This category will include, side-by-side, fraudsters from the realms of housing and municipal services, substandard food products, and unscrupulous retail chains, charlatan social workers and illegal realtors, and fraudulent banks and fat-cat bankers. And for dessert they will offer us stories about Russian military exercises all over the place, even including the Arctic, and a de facto military siege against a backdrop of billions of rubles stolen from the budget and a lack of money to index pensions.
To begin with the Russian regime recruited society as an ally, exploiting the knowingly present and consistently strengthened anti-American arguments that had existed since the 90s. But the tactic of cautious speculation was replaced in 2012-2015 with a ruthless crackdown and a gamble on former Soviet citizens’ deepest fear of war, including nuclear war. Aggression started to coexist with fear.
But as the number of exposed enemies — external and internal, floating around and changing their spots but no longer by no means necessarily linked to the State Department — increases, reasonable fear is being replaced by an intuitive feeling of vulnerability and defenselessness in the face of not so much an American threat to Russia as a threat to everyday life. And this is the sphere of responsibility not of the US State Department any longer but of our own state, which is irrationally investing out of inertia too much effort in proving that it is itself a powerless victim.