Glenn Diesen: How 'Russophrenia' from supposedly smart people in the West has slowly led us towards a major European war
The author and holocaust survivor, Victor Klemperer, identified two distinct styles of language that defined Hitler’s propaganda against the Jews: either “scornful derision” of the inferior race or “panic-stricken fear” of their threat to civilisation.
Anti-Russian propaganda over the past centuries has similarly produced two contradictory positions – disdain for Russians as an uncivilised and backward people, and simultaneously an immeasurable threat looming over Europe. A state of affairs described by one writer as "Russophrenia: the idea that Russia is simultaneously about to fall apart, and also take over the world."
Russia is hopelessly inept and weak, yet it is also capable of subverting the democracies of the world and restoring a global empire. Moscow is so impaired that the West does not need to acknowledge or accommodate its basic security interests, yet NATO’s 30 member states need ever-more weapons to defend against the dreaded Russians.
Exaggerating the weakness or the strength of an adversary (or both) is a key component of propaganda, which carries with it the obvious risk of miscalculations, as the real capabilities of the opponent are not accurately assessed. The war in Ukraine is a good case study of this phenomenon.
Exaggerating Russian strength and weakness
To encourage more NATO, more military spending and containment of Russia, it is commonly argued that we have underestimated the threat of the Russians. During the Cold War, it was falsely argued that the Soviets enjoyed a huge positive missile gap vis-à-vis the US, which incentivised further military spending in the US. After the Cold War, NATO expansion and raison d'etre have continued to rely on an exaggerated Russian threat.
To encourage a more forceful approach to Russia, it is now argued that we have overestimated Moscow’s strength. Case in point, an article by The Atlantic argues that “Ukraine Has Exposed Russia as a Not-So-Great Power”. It suggests that because the Russian army “has seized only 20 percent of Ukraine,” it is time to shed the illusion of Russia being a great power. This conclusion supports an even more hard-line position towards Russia as opposed to Kissinger’s argument that great powers must be accommodated for peace. In other words, more of the same policies that fuelled tensions and brought us to this horrific conflict.
The flawed narrative of Russian failure in Ukraine
There is no doubt that Russia failed to achieve a swift victory in Ukraine. Russia stormed up to the outskirts of Kiev in the early stages, seeking to impose a settlement. The Russian territorial advances seemed very impressive and coincided with the narrative of an all-mighty Russia. In reality, these positions relied on thin and vulnerable supply lines. With the failure of achieving a diplomatic settlement with Kiev, these positions had to be abandoned.
The UK and the US persuaded Kiev to abandon the peace talks in Istanbul, and the nature of the fighting subsequently changed fundamentally. The collective West promised it would provide all the weapons required if Ukraine would end negotiations and fight Russia. Washington stipulated its objective of permanently weakening Russia and knocking it down from the table of great powers. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin explicitly announced that American aims included getting “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine”. This objective is consistent with the goals set by the renowned intelligence-linked think tank RAND Corporation in 2019, which is to overextend and take down Moscow: “The Ukrainian military already is bleeding Russia in the Donbass region (and vice versa). Providing more U.S. military equipment and advice could lead Russia to increase its direct involvement in the conflict and the price it pays for it”.
The Russian hope of a swift victory was thus replaced with a war of attrition, in which Moscow aimed to grind down and destroy the Ukrainian army – before imposing a settlement. The breaking point has now been reached, as evident by the current collapse of Ukraine’s most heavily fortified positions in Maryinka, Pisky and Avviivka. This will likely end in August or September, and then shift towards more rapid territorial conquest. Is it strategically wise to deny this reality to sell the narrative of a weak Russia?
The narrative of an inept, exhausted and demoralised Russian military that has almost run out of ammunition has persisted since March. Yet, there is an even wider problem with the narrative of Russia not being able to defeat its weak neighbour. In reality, NATO has also indirectly gone to war against Russia. US Brigadier General Joseph E. Hilbert argued that “the worst thing the Russians did was give us eight years to prepare.” Furthermore, the collective West has supplied increasingly advanced weapons since Russia invaded in February 2022.
Is Russia a great power?
American political scientist John Mearsheimer defines a great power by its “reasonable prospect of defending itself against the leading state in the system by its own efforts.” It appears that Russia has passed that test as the collective West has now thrown everything but the kitchen sink in terms of supplying military hardware, military intelligence, and economic sanctions.
The collective West has depleted a large part of its weapons storage in a futile effort to stop Russian advances on the battlefield. This is despite the fact that Russia is only fighting with its peacetime army of 200,000 troops against a Ukrainian army several times this size. The 3:1 rule of war stipulates that in order that for the attacker to win the battle, his forces should be at least three times the force of the defender. In Ukraine, this ratio is reversed with 1:3 in Ukraine’s favour. Russia’s 2 million reserve soldiers and much of its more advanced weapons are kept as backup in case NATO directly enters the war.
The collective West has launched unprecedented economic sanctions with the explicit expectation that it would immediately collapse the Russian economy, financial system and currency. This never happened and the Russian ruble is the strongest performing currency this year. Instead, the sanctions have backfired so spectacularly, to the extent that the West has set fire to its own house in the hope it would spread to Moscow.
The attempt to mobilise the international community against Russia has also failed, as 85% of the world population live in countries that have refused to participate in sanctions – despite pressure and threats from the US. Even the pope pointed to NATO expansionism as a source of the war.
The dangers of wishful thinking
Denying that Russia is a great power may feel good, but as stated by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu more than 2,500 years ago: “There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent”.
Wishful thinking about Russian weakness incentivises the collective West to escalate, while diplomacy and a peace agreement become increasingly difficult and unfavourable.
Before February 2014, Russia’s main policy towards Ukraine was to preserve it as a neutral state, a bridge between East and West. After the Western-supported regime change and support for an “anti-terrorist operation” against Donbass, Russia demanded autonomy for Donbass. As the US sabotaged the Minsk peace agreement, which was aimed at delivering autonomy, for seven years, the Kremlin switched to pushing for Donbass independence. Once the US began sending advanced weapons to Ukraine with the explicit aim of permanently weakening Russia, Moscow expanded its territorial claims to counter this threat.
The anti-Russia sanctions have been exhausted, and have backfired terribly. There is now a recognition that the measures have been a spectacular failure, as Western economies crumble while Moscow is shifting its economic connectivity to the East. Russia’s economic dependence on the West has been a source of great influence, but this leverage is dwindling and is not coming back.
The desire to depict Russia as feeble is required as NATO insists it must negotiate from a position of strength. But isn’t this the source of the problems? For 30 years, NATO negotiated against a weaker Moscow, and the result was that the US-led bloc could act unilaterally and ignore Russian security interests. By abandoning pan-European security agreements, pan-European security collapsed.
We have been moving slowly towards a major European war for 30 years and there are no good solutions anymore. But an end to wishful thinking must be the beginning.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.