A Spectre of “Russian threat” is Haunting Europe…

By: Andrei Tarasov

During the Cold War period the “Soviet threat” was a dominant issue not only in the political discourse of the West, but also permeated the spheres of social and cultural life. The image of “bloody Russian Ivan Drago” is a standard embodiment of Soviet villainy in the cinema even if Ivan Drago only appeared in the latest years of the Cold War. Political animosity created a lot of stereotypes in the Western society about the Soviet Russia. The reasons for that are quite clear. In the epoch of widespread threat and “spy mania” both sides used a disinformation campaign in order to destabilize the enemy using different tools. Being Anti-Soviet in Europe and Anti-Western (in fact, anti-American) in the USSR was an imminent feature of every politician. For example, the Marshall Plan required that a political system be free of communism in order to be eligible for financial aid from the US.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the period of coordination emerged and the “Soviet threat” became history. Only its footprint remained in the cultural sphere where movie-makers from time to time reminded us about “Russian spies”. But on an official level Russia was no longer considered as a threat. Instead of it, the “№1 enemy” became radical Islam.

But in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis we can see the rebirth of the “Soviet threat” in a new context. Russia reclaimed the status of  the West’s external enemy. European politicians started to emphasize this issue in order to earn political points.

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photo by: Nadine Gabron

Russia’s metaphorical hand appeared in the US Presidential elections, in “Brexit”, in the Catalonian referendum, etc. Traditionally, champions in the positioning of Russia as the “imperium of evil” are central european countries and Baltic states. This led Poland to spend at least two military budgets on “Patriots”- a missile system sent to it by the US this summer. Estonia asked NATO to deploy troops in their country in order to stand against Russia. Moreover, this topic found itself in the political agenda in Brussels and Western European countries as well. But anti-Russian xenophobia is not just a subjective feeling of unsafety. It is an instrument of populism which is beginning to take on a grotesque form. There is no need to mention all the cases of when the Russian threat was used as a crutch in the internal machinations of the EU member-states to justify lack of competency in political governance. I would like to pay attention to just two recent cases.

Germany v. Poland

There is no secret that Berlin and Warsaw have different stances on many issues like migrants, Russian gas, and etc.  In all honesty, Germany is not happy with the fact that a not so pro-European as pro-American country finds itself at the crossroad of a transnational gas transportation system. Nevertheless, in Poland it is really difficult to find among top politicians someone who doesn’t tend to critique Russia. But the quality German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, achieved the impossible. They “found evidence” that the Minister of Defense for Poland Antoni Macierewicz and his deputy are connected with Russia. They prove this statement by the following logic. Firstly, Macierewicz had “frequent contacts” with the deputy chairman of the “pro-Russian” (in fact, simply sharply anti-American) “Change” party. The chairman of the party has been under investigation for more than a year now about espionage in favor of Russia. There is no official verdict on it yet but so far, in accordance with the “presumption of the Russian threat”, he certainly is considered a spy. That means that everyone who shook hands with him, even through an intermediary, is at least under heavy suspicion. Secondly, as the journalist of a German newspaper himself points out, it seems to him that Macierewicz is pushing Poland closer towards Russia.

In fact, Macierewicz was one of the main populists who tried to find Russian footprints everywhere. For example, in October 2016 he made a sensational report wherein he stated that, according to him, “Egypt has already resold the helicopter carriers “Mistral” received from France to Russia for one dollar.”

In connection with the preparation of a legal reform that “reduces the independence of the courts” in Poland, “activists” launched mass protests of a new type. These protests have received the poetic name of “the chain of light”. Citizens in the evenings joined together to create living “chains” around the buildings of the courts (sometimes with candles) and thus symbolically defended the judiciary from the ruling right-wing “Right and Justice” party. The weekly Polish Newspaper reports that “the putsch in Poland was financed by Germany.” According to the publication, over the last two years, the “Action Democracy” foundation, which organized a “chain of light” throughout Poland, received “hundreds of thousands of zlotys” in the form of grants from foreign structures, in particular the European Climate Fund. And the head of the Supervisory Board of the fund is Caio Koch-Weser, former Secretary of State in the Federal Ministry of Finance. According to the report, Koch-Weser helped Russia receive money for the construction of the Nord Stream[1]. You will surely see how the two are connected.

Instead of trying to resolve the problem and find a democratic solution, we see how influential media outlets explain a country’s domestic problems by invoking external factors.

Catalonia v. Spain.

In the previous case we see how European media employed “the Kremlin’s hand”. In the following case it is observed that not only media but also top officials use this tool. After the 1-O referendum in Catalonia, the Washington Post issued an article with the title: “Catalonia held a referendum. Russia won”. The main argument was that “Moscow evidently perceives the Catalan movement as another vehicle for dividing and weakening the democratic West”. Spanish media such as El País immediately bandwagoned on this rhetoric. Instead of blaming Russian spies for tampering with the political process as was the case in the Cold War era, El País saw the problem in “Russian hackers” which supported the online websites for the referendum. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence for it. But who needs evidence? The main point is that  the Catalonian separatism movement is sustained thanks to Russian help.

This storyline jumped from the media space to a political one.  “It seems that there are enough reliable reports confirming that Russian networks or ‘hackers’ are not only limited to issues concerning Spain, but are also working towards the destabilization of the European Union.” the Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said in an interview with “Cope” radio station. According to him, Russia has shown such an interest for a long time, since it does not feel “comfortable” with the “unity” of the European project. The Russian government asked to see evidence which would prove this statement. In response, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, the Minister of Defense for Spain, said “What the government really knows is that many messages through social networks originate from Russian territory and I want to draw attention to the expression: ‘Russian territory’. This does not necessarily mean that we are claiming that this is the Russian government”. Nevertheless, Spain is going to raise this question in the upcoming Council of the EU.

Uncomfortable Truth

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What do these cases show us? When the EU picked up the Russian Threat three years its creators expected solid pluses. With the help of “terrible Russia” you can cheer up the voter. Under Russia, you can knock out budgets for the purchase of weapons and “information confrontation with the Russian hybrid war, soft power and covert interference”. And evidence for this is not necessary at all. With the Russophobic campaign, the Western consolidated media-political elite has overdone it a little. They have crossed the line by which the usual “campaign” ends and stepped beyond it into the hysterical-occult realm where hunting for witches begins.

At that moment, Russia was reborn from a convenient and useful tool and turned into an infection and a curse. After all, if “working for Moscow” is an accusation that does not require proof, but rather wins on the spot, it’s just a matter of time when this fabricated curse will backfire against its creators.  It seems that we are just watching and waiting. At the first glimpse of an acute conflict within the EU, it turns out that the Russophobes became Russian-backed.

The Catalonian case is deeper and more dangerous. Populism can take different forms. The most common one is a politician armed with catchy slogans promising the impossible. The main distinctive feature of any populist is that he or she offers a simple, sometimes even primitive and therefore unrealistic solution. This is a problem that unfortunately we see now in Spain. Government tries to explain the genesis of the complex, having its own excuse that the Catalan crisis is a result of Russian interference. As the ambassador of Russia in Spain Y. Korchagin said: “The danger of this approach is quite obvious, since the decision-makers are trying to send people on a false track, to distract from the complicated, I would say, filigree work to resolve a serious problem that the friendly Spain has”.

It is time to understand that internal problems of the European states belong to European states. Only by eliminating such populistic tools as the invocation of the Russian Threat from political discourse will we see changes in the dynamics of EU-Russian relations, as well as improvement in dealing with the internal challenges for the EU project in its entirety.

 

Notes:

[1] Nord Stream 2 is the project of gas transportation system from Russia to Germany. Poland officially states that this project poses a threat for the energy security of Europe

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