The expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US was still to come when White House press secretary Josh Earnest was busy confirming to journalists that President Obama shared the view of the CIA and the FBI that Russia’s top intelligence agencies had hacked and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee. But one question from reporters stood out: did the White House believe Russia had successfully rigged the US presidential election? ‘There are a variety of potential explanations [for Donald Trump’s win]’, responded Earnest.
Just think about the absurdity of that question for a second. American journalists were seriously asking the White House if it believed Russia had effectively rigged the US election. Forget the massive disillusionment of many working and middle-class Americans with a political establishment that has treated them with disdain. Forget the failure of successive administrations to address deep-seated economic and political problems. Forget, in short, the perfectly understandable, rational reasons why many Americans decided to vote for Trump, aside from a bunch of emails that revealed what everybody already knew about Clinton. Journalists were actually suggesting that Putin – ‘and not much happens… without Vladimir Putin’, as Obama put it a few days later – might have fixed it for Trump to win.
The belief that it was Russia that won it for Trump is almost as absurd as the Washington Post’s contention that Trump is Putin’s very own Manchurian candidate. But, as can be heard in Earnest’s eagerly equivocal response, too many among today’s Western elites seem to want to believe it. They want to see the hand of Putin in every challenge they face, every problem they confront, and increasingly every setback they endure. The specific problems differ, but the elite refrain is the same: it’s not our failure. It’s not our fault. It’s Russia that’s to blame. It’s Russia that is the demiurge of world affairs, the power behind the aspirants to assorted thrones, the ignition for the world’s conflagration, the threat to what should be an otherwise orderly world ruled over by the great and good.
Think of the one-sided narrative that continues to be peddled by an embattled establishment in relation to Syria. Even now, the fact that it was the US and Europe that first intervened in, and inflamed, the Syrian conflict in 2011, anointing Assad’s successors and funnelling money and arms to rebel-cum-Islamist groups, is obscured by the relentless attempt to blame Russia for the ruination of Syria and the slaughter in Aleppo. Or think of the story of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the civil conflict in the rest of Ukraine, which, for Russia, had long been a buffer state and an ally against the incursions of the West. Again, NATO and the EU’s decades-long flirtation with Ukraine, which, in 2013, turned into a Western-backed overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, is determinedly erased from history and the spectre of Russian aggression posited in its place, as if the Ukraine conflict was always a tale of Russian expansionism and Putin’s imperial delusion.
It’s as if every challenge to, and every problem faced by, the Western political establishment today is somehow reducible to Russian perfidy. We’re told, in the words of John E Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, that ‘Putin wants to destroy that Europe [of democracy, peace and prosperity]’. We’re told by the Guardian that the big ‘strategic, security and diplomatic problem’ of our age is: ‘what to do about Russia?’. And we’re told by Obama that ‘the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behaviour’. Because Russia is being conjured up as the problem, the cause of instability, the enemy.