In 2018, there were few things Western elites didn't blame on Russia...
Over the summer, Sweden’s defence commission warned that ‘a larger European conflict could start with an attack on Sweden’. Politicians and military planners clearly agreed – in June, 22,000 Swedish volunteer soldiers were called up for the largest surprise exercise since 1975.
The protagonist of this European conflict wasn’t named as such, but it didn’t need to be. Because every politician and civil servant, every pundit and broadcaster, just knows that the protagonist is Russia. Because that is the function ‘Russia’ – alongside associated dread words such as ‘Vladimir Putin’ or ‘Russian oligarchs’ – now plays in the political imagination of Western elites. It is the catch-all, go-to explanation for their travails. The assumed military demiurge of global instability. The real, albeit dark and hidden, source of populist discontent.
Yet while Russia-mania is widespread among today’s political and cultural elites, it is not uniform.
For an older, right-wing section of the Western political and media class, otherwise known as the Cold War Re-Enactment Society, Russia looms large principally as a military, quasi-imperial threat. Jim Mattis, the former US marine and general, and now US defence secretary, said Russia was responsible for ‘the biggest attack [on the world order] since World War Two’. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. What matters is that Russia appears as a military aggressor. What matters is that Russia’s actions in Ukraine – which were arguably a defensive reaction to NATO and the EU’s expansion into Russia’s traditional ally – are grasped as an act of territorial aggrandisement. What matters is that Russia’s military operations in Syria – which, again, were arguably a pragmatic intervention to stabilise the West-stoked chaos – are rendered as an expression of imperial aggression. What matters is that Russian state involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury – which, given its failure, proved Russian incompetence – is presented as ‘part of a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours, from the western Balkans to the Middle East’, to quote Theresa May.
And it matters because, if Russia is dressed up as the West’s old Cold War adversary, just with a new McMafia logo, then the crumbling, illegitimate and increasingly pointless postwar institutions through which Western elites have long ordered the world, suddenly look just that little bit more solid, legitimate and purposeful. And none more so than NATO.
This is why NATO has this year been accompanying its statements warning Russia to ‘stop its reckless pattern of behaviour’ with some of the largest military exercises since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly three decades ago. Including one in November in Norway, involving 50,000 troops, 10,000 vehicles, 250 aircraft and 60 warships.
Then there is the...