- Thomson Reuters
Not since the Cold War have tensions between Russia and the West reached the terrifying heights we’ve seen in recent months.
Russia now challenges the West in virtually every arena possible, with cyberattacks, nuclear posturing, military invasions of Western-leaning countries, and the intimidation of US allies and neutral states.
“We’ve seen the failure of democratic institutions in Russia. It’s not the open and free society that we had hoped for at the end of the Cold War, and with that failure comes an insecurity on the part of Moscow’s leaders,” Lewis said of Russia’s retreat back toward dictatorship after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Democracy provides countries like the US with a stable, established path for power changing hands. In the US, politicians serve at the pleasure of the people, who have legal and political means to replace their leadership without revolting.
But in Russia, where rampant inequality exists between powerful, connected oligarchs and regular Russian citizens, Lewis said, the rulers are “terrified that they’re going to be toppled from power, which they don’t hold democratically or temporarily – they fear a coup.”
Lewis said the wisdom from George F. Kennan’s 1946 “Telegram from Moscow” still holds. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union saw itself in a “capitalist encirclement” and could not peacefully coexist with the capitalist, or Western, world.
- Ivan Sekretarev/AP
“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” Kennan argued. “Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.”
Lewis contends that these conditions persist and that “the way they deal with that insecurity is bullying and threatening their neighbors.”
Russia has committed to “build their security on the insecurity of their neighbors,” Lewis said. And creating instability is as easy as casting doubt, while creating stability requires accountability and transparency, which the Russian state need not bother with as it increasingly takes control of the country’s media.
“Interference with Ukraine and Baltics is part of that” will to destabilize Russia’s neighbors, Lewis said. Moscow’s push for chaos in the West can be seen, he said, in its “desperate effort to shore up Syria” as well as in its hacks on the US election system.
“It’s important to them to tear us down to prove that we’re just as bad and corrupt as they are,” Lewis said.
Unfortunately for the US, much of Russia’s campaign to discredit Western institutions works. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump often touts information exposed by WikiLeaks, an organization with ties to Russia, and has attacked the legitimacy of US democracy and threatened to ignore the results of the election.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorability numbers, which he keeps artificially high in his country by controlling the media and oppressing dissenters, have also improved dramatically among US Republicans this election cycle.
Lewis says Russia has funded several far-right nationalist organizations in Europe, like that of France’s Marine Le Pen. The rise of nationalistic, law-and-order seeking authoritarians on the far right, a well-documented phenomenon in Europe, seems to favor autocratic regimes like Putin’s.
In countries like Turkey and Hungary, powerful leaders with nationalist rhetoric erode the democracies that brought them to power. Those leaders then increasingly turn to Putin as an ally who won’t fault them for attacking the press or other democratic institutions.
Lewis said Russian leadership wanted Americans to think, “The people who run the US are just as bad as the people who run Russia,” adding that he found such tactics “infuriating.”
While examples of corruption and abuse can certainly be found in Western, democratic governments, regular citizens and a free press can freely speak out when they disagree with the rich and powerful. This brings accountability to the government.
Putin, on the other hand, doesn’t want free speech, dissent, or rule by consensus; he wants order to provide the security his authoritarian government so sorely lacks.
“Russians just want a free hand to bully their neighbors,” Lewis said. “There is no level of Russian power that will make Putin feel secure. There is nothing we can do that can make them happy.”
- REUTERS/Jason Reed
“If we gave them the Baltics, they’d ask for Finland and Poland,” Lewis said.
But the US has very few options to deal with this menace. The US allows free speech, and Russian propaganda and talking points will no doubt continue to find their way into Western society. Within Russia, Lewis said: “Putin is consolidating power, and he’s paranoid. There’s not much you can do. You can’t fix it for the Russians – they have to fix it themselves.”