The Western Media Caught in the Kremlin’s Russophobia Trap

Givi Gigitashvili is an intern at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs

The available evidence seems to suggest that the Ukraine crisis marked the resurgence of anti-Russian sentiments among Western media outlets and societies. Majority of hawkish statements about Russia immediately get qualified in Moscow as patterns of Western-led Russophobia. Remarkably, proponents of containment strategy against Russia are increasingly ascribed by Moscow as Russophobes, driven by paranoid fear of this country. In fact, this term is increasingly being abused by the Kremlin and this article seeks to explain how incumbent Russia’s political regime successfully uses these statements for its own ends and how radical anti-Russian commentators with their statements can unwittingly play the Kremlin’s game. It also elucidates the concept of Russophobia in its original understanding and introduces a number of recent examples, which can be qualified as Russophobic. Finally, this text seeks to explain why vilification of Vladimir Putin’s persona by the Western media can be counterproductive.

Unpacking the concept of Russophobia

At the root of Russophobia is a fear of Russia’s political system that is deemed as culturally and ideologically alien to that of Western values. Russophobes are increasingly supporting to the claim that expansionist instincts and autocracy are deeply embedded into its national character, thus, interests of Russia and the West will remain eternally irreconcilable.[1]  Many Western commentators and trustworthy magazines constantly place an emphasis on Russia’s backwardness, threatening and non-Western identity and seek to depict it as an aggressively wicked country. Furthermore, by restating the frightening effects that Russia poses to Europe, Russophobes campaign for a view of keeping Russia weak, again, for the sake of the West’s security. Before moving to present a number of apparent Russophobia examples, we should try to elucidate this term better. 

According to Armeyskov’s definition, “Russophobia can be viewed as a form of (cultural) racism, according to which ‘Russians’ are inherently inferior (intellectually, culturally) to some other ethno cultural entity or entities (‘Europeans’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’), prone to deviant behavior and pose a serious danger to the established Western social norms and even to the Western civilization itself.” Cultural racism in this context can be understood as affirmation of Europe’s superiority over non-European peoples. Remarkably, amid Russia’s current foreign policy assertiveness, narratives about Russia’s backwardness and inherent incompatibility with democracy and the Western standards have gained momentum in the Western Media. To start with, In her article, ‘Russia will never be like us’, Pulitzer-prize winning author Anne Applebaum argues, “Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics.”[2] Second, Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of German weekly Die Zeit notes that Russia’s leader is scolded, “you have just reaffirmed a historic Russian habit: You would rather be the great spoiler and outsider.”[3] Third, Julia Ioffe, who writes for the magazines, such as New York Times and foreign policy, argues that Russia needs to sort out some of its psychological issues including paranoid projection, an inferiority complex and delayed adolescence.[4] (It it strange that Russia, allegedly obsessed with inferiority complex still manages to be so reckless). Fourth, Krastev and Leonard describe Russia the old styled authority, which acts as a19th century power, while the West, and in particular, the EU is a postmodern entity, much more advanced than outer world.[5]

It is worth to highlight that not only Western media, but also anti-Russian sentiments have significantly increased among the Western societies. To be precise, from 2013 to 2014, the negative attitudes of European citizens towards Russia increased from 54% to 75%, while this number in the United States rose from 43% in 2013 to 72% in 2014.[6] Amid the growing domestic support to the current regime, many people in the West propound the narratives, according to which Russians have a special gene that make them eager to have an autocrat leadership, their DNA is incompatible with freedom and therefore, they cannot live in a democratic state.[7] However, such claims are inherently wrong, even insulting for many Russians, who relentlessly fight for democracy inside and outside of this country.

In a similar vein, vilification of Vladimir Putin, known as Putinophobia, has gained momentum in Western media and consequently, Russia’s external assertiveness has become tremendously personalized. Putin, being the symbol of Russia’s resurgence, is identified as a chief culprit in the Russia-West discord. One can encounter his pictures on covers of vast majority of the mainstream Western magazines, illustrating his bad and dangerous personality. However, by over-focusing on the role of political leaders, Western commentators misleadingly disregard the factor of continuity in Russia’s foreign policy. What is more, irrespective of these enormous endeavors to study and decipher his personality in order to anticipate Russia’s ensuing moves, this country still retains its calling card – unpredictability in foreign policy and in most cases, the West seems ill-equipped to tackle with Russia’s external assertiveness.

It is worth to note that criticism of Russian political elite should not be understood as an expression of Russophobia, since the latter mainly denotes negative sentiments and fear of Russian people, culture and country as a whole etc. Nevertheless, Russia’s current propaganda and considerably increased role of the state in the public domain enables to the current regime to portray the harsh Western criticism directed toward the ruling elite as hatred of everything Russian. Based on it, in ensuing section, I will discuss how Russia benefits from these anti-Russian sentiments.

Russophobia – the Kremlin’s trap?

A large and growing body of literature argues that Russia’s political elite is extremely sensitive about country’s image in the West. According to Andrey Tsygankov, Russia’s foreign policy is largely determined by the national ideal of honor that represents an indispensable part of its culture. He adds, “Historically, Russian rulers have sought to be like the West and win its recognition by joining Western alliances. As long as it feels sufficient recognition and reciprocation from Western capitals, Moscow is prepared to act in concert with its significant other. However, when the West challenges Russia’s distinctiveness and internal sense of honor, Russia tends to adopt either defensive or assertive policy postures”.[8] Judging by this logic, currently we are witnessing an assertive enhancement of its honor by Moscow, which is justified by the Russian government as a response to the growing Russophobia and disrespect of this country from the West. Russian political leaders strongly believe that the West incessantly disparages Russia and its role in international affairs, seeks to isolate and keep it subordinate.

Intriguingly, political statements from the Western leaders, which in one way or another criticizes Russia’s current regime, are immediately labeled by political elite as signs of Russophobia. Under these circumstances, by calling them Russophobia directed not only towards government but also towards Russian people, the Kremlin unremittingly revitalizes its propaganda and by doing so, anti-Russian narratives breathe a new life into recreation of enemy image by Moscow that serves to the purpose of mobilizing people against the alleged threats. By portraying hawkish anti-Russian statements as Russophobic, Moscow gives a boost government’s effort to persuade population that the West unambiguously perceives Russia as a danger. Thus, the logical conclusion from this narrative is that the West intends to destroy Russia in an effort to eliminate this threat. Furthermore, political leadership asserts that many internal as well as external setbacks in foreign policy are caused by negative images of Russia in the West and these bad images are not nurtured by objective reality, rather it is the direct consequence of Russophobia.[9] Allegedly, it laid the groundwork to Moscow’s aggressive propaganda campaign, which intents to overhaul Russia’s images abroad and to counteract Russophobia.

Secondly, fear of Western Russophobia contagion “induces” Russian government to immunize own society from being infected with this phenomenon and by doing so, particular Russian citizens become targets of Russophobe’s stigma and similar a virus bacteria, they need to be eliminated, meaning imprisoned etc. In domestic context, a ‘Russophobe’ means a Russian citizen, who criticizes the regime, supports democratization and liberalization of Russia, expresses sympathy for countries, which are ascribed as Russophobes.[10] A closer inspection of this process suggests that ‘Russophobe’ stigma coupled with ‘fifth column’ is selectively used against political opponents of current regime, including those people, who call for democratic changes in the country. Subsequently, domestic ‘Russophobes’ are prosecuted by draconian laws, which are used quite extensively in an effort to crackdown political opponents.

Thirdly, Russophobia helps Moscow to reinforce its “besieged fortress” and “humiliated” image. Nowadays, many Russian commentators argue that in the aftermaths of USSR collapse, Russia was viewed in a positive light in the West, because it was weak and exhausted. However, when it started rising from the knees, the West responded with Russophobia that was perceived in Moscow as sign of the West’s reluctance to embrace Russia’s recover and the former tried to encircle it with new “fences” and in doing so, NATO and the EU were enlarged. This siege mentality and humiliation mantra have become the main justification for the Kremlin’s current revisionism and are being used in foreign policy repertoire, as a mean of blackmailing the West: “If you continue to humiliate Russia, we could find ways to retaliate, like we did in case of Ukraine”.[11]In fact, Russia asserts that the Western Russophobia is a concomitant effect of Russia’s recover, because they want to keep Russia humiliated.

Finally yet importantly, Putin’s personal demonization can be considered as a flawed logic mainly for the following reasons. Over the last two years, Western media journalists have become obsessed with writing about his personal stories and especially his KGB past. In my account, Putin’s vilification through such endeavors, in fact, unconsciously translates into fatal attraction with his personality. As a result, an actual look at online shows that more and more people in the West are getting enchanted with Putin’s masculinity, bold actions and ironically, Western Putinphobia has largely instigated these sympathies. Secondly, equalizing Putin with Russian state is likewise a flawed approach, since he represents the highest arbiter at the top of a complex system of political elite (and not the system itself), consisting of several competing groups and ramifications of interplay between these groups should not be sidelined in Western media, while analyzing the internal developments and its ramifications externally. As one interesting essay argues, not all political failures or successes of Russia can rest on a single figure, given that Putin is not a classical dictator.[12] This skyrocketed worldwide attention makes him even more egocentric and courageous in assertive foreign policy behavior.

Conclusion

To sum up what has been said thus far, harsh and sometimes irrational anti-Russian statements can nurture the Kremlin’s propaganda. Having in mind Russia’s obsession with its national self-esteem, Western politicians should abstain from extremely scornful and oftentimes, exaggerated rhetoric towards Russia, since it helps the latter to strike back. Furthermore, as long as we are witnessing an inability of the West to form a coherent, one voice to speak with Russia, unbalanced statements convince Putin that the West is divided and weak. Secondly, although focusing on Putin seem to be tempting for journalists, Russian people and their attitudes deserve more attention from the Western media. Therefore, it should demonstrate more interest towards Russian people and their freedom in order to refute prevailed Russophobic narratives in the West. The Western media should redirect its focus from Putin’s personality and write more about the mood of Russian people, what they think about democracy, rule of law, how they imagine the future of Russia etc. Currently, the West is facing an explicit dilemma - while hawkish statements nurture Russian propaganda, accommodation can hardly comprehend the fact that political concessions vis-à-vis Russia would mark the victory of Russian propaganda. It generates the need for a new workable approach, based on relatively constructive rhetoric.

[1]Tsygankov A. 2009. Russophobia, anti-Russian lobby and American foreign policy.Palgrave Macmillan.

[2]Applebaum A. 2014. Russia will never be like us. Slate. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/03/ukraine_and_crimea_russia_is_an_anti_western_power_with_a_dark_vision_of.htmlaccessed: 19.07.2016

[3]Joffe J. 2014. A letter from the prince to Putin. Hoover institution. March 7. Available at: http://www.hoover.org/research/letter-prince-putinaccessed: 19.07.2016

[4]Ioffe J.  2014. The Russians think I’m a Russophobe? They’re right. New republic. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/116586/russians-think-im-russophobic-theyre-right-response-selfaccessed 19.07.2016

[5]Krastev I, Leonard M. 2014. The new European disorder. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR117_TheNewEuropeanDisorder_ESSAY.pdf Accessed: 20.07.2016

[6] Pew research Centre. 2015. Russia’s global image negative amid crisis in Ukraine.  July 9. Available at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/07/09/russias-global-image-negative-amid-crisis-in-ukraine/ Accessed: 20.11.2016

[7] Shevtsova L. 2015. Humiliation as a tool of blackmail.The American interests. Available at: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/06/02/humiliation-as-a-tool-of-blackmail/  accessed: 20.07.2016

[8][8]Tsygankov A.  2012. Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin, honor in international relations. Cambridge university press.

[9]Feklyunina V. 2009. National images and international relations: Putin’s Russia and the West. University of Glasgow, PhD thesis. Available from: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/1391/2/2009feklyuninaphd.pdf accessed: 10.07.2016

[10]Darczewska J, Zochowski P. 2015. Russophobia in the Kremlin’s strategy, a weapon of mass destruction.Centre for Eastern studies. Available at: http://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/pw_56_ang_russophobia_net.pdf accessed: 15.07.2016

[11]Shevtsova L. 2015. Humiliation as a tool of blackmail.The American interests. Available at: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/06/02/humiliation-as-a-tool-of-blackmail/  accessed: 20.07.2016

[12] Edwards M and others. 2016. Why we don’t publish articles about Putin. Open democracy, Russia and beyond.Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/maxim-edwards-thomas-rowley/why-we-don-t-publish-articles-about-putin accessed: 21.07.2016

Published 23 December 2016

Author Givi Gigitashvili