Leave Putin Alone!

After the collapse of the Trump-Russia conspiracy, it turns out that Moscow’s supposedly satanic power is a myth inflated for political purposes and reaches Israel's shores too

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Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin.Credit: AFP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Democrats in the United States are in trouble. Even though the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t find evidence of collusion between President Donald Trump and Russia, some leaders of the Democratic majority in the House insist that the document actually proves that they were right. They’re hinting that Mueller came under pressure and therefore whitewashed the investigation.

Like pious conspiracy theorists, they believe that a lack of proof of a conspiracy only proves that an even bigger conspiracy exists and is preventing the exposure of the truth. It’s a frame of mind that attests to a fixation — not surprising given the tremendous hopes that the Democrats pinned on Mueller’s report. It was supposed to provide the grounds for Trump’s impeachment, or at least undermine his legitimacy.

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The collapse of the Russian-involvement thesis that has been with us for two years calls for a re-examination of the basic assumptions. We’re seeing the crash of a conception almost as intense as the mistaken conception that prevented the overwhelming majority of pundits from predicting Trump’s victory.

Which leads to the following question: What prompted so many good people to cling to this theory with such deep conviction? What led politicians, stand-up comics and smart-in-their-own-eyes analysts to portray Trump as a Russian agent? The answer is that Russian involvement has become a myth that explains almost every threatening phenomenon.

The world order that took shape after the collapse of the communist bloc has imploded in recent years and given way to chaos and uncertainty. It’s not clear what’s happening, what will happen and what turning point awaits around the corner. No one knows where the next surprise will come from: It could be France, Syria, Brazil or maybe some other corner of the world that no one imagines at the moment.

In this situation, many people seek certainty that will let them organize the unfolding events based on some sort of logic. The political disarray has thus spawned a new theory: Russia is the source of all evil.

The refugee myth

The truth is, no great effort was required to develop paranoia about Russia. All that was needed was to awaken the anxieties from the Cold War that had lain dormant for three decades. Thus, in no time, an entire political worldview was constructed that explains everything bad that happens as a symptom of Russian involvement.

Trump is a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brexit is a Russian conspiracy, and the far right in Europe is also serving the enemy in the East. The late Sen. John McCain, one of the greatest proponents of the myth of Russian influence, even claimed that Russia had sought to further inflame the war in Syria in order to flood Europe with refugees and break apart the European Union and NATO.

Some people allege that Russia is even to blame for climate change: Moscow is spreading disinformation to block efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the hope that the world will become warmer and the Siberian winters more tolerable. In the Benny Gantz tapes that were leaked this week, the candidate raises the possibility that Russia intervened in favor of Netanyahu and hacked Gantz’s phone. But why should Russia support Netanyahu? It doesn’t really matter.

Russia is depicted as a satanic, chaotic force using innovative methods such as bots and fake-news sites to stoke anarchy. Almost every political fluctuation, toward whichever side, can be interpreted as a Russian victory.

But it turns out that the Russians aren’t omnipotent after all. Last week it was reported that Putin has given the order to start withdrawing Russia’s forces from Syria. Sukhoi bombers have already returned to their home bases. Who knows whether the claims that Russia will increase its presence in our region indefinitely aren’t also based on a paranoid conception?

As the journalist Tony Wood argues in his new book “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War,” Russia is nothing more than a midsize power suffering from population decline and ever worse crises. In Wood’s view, the balance of power between Russia and the West is markedly tilted toward the West, and Russia’s mischief is only a response to growing intervention by the United States and the EU in Eastern Europe.

Wood believes that Russia’s reactions are largely improvised and not part of a well-planned anti-Western strategy. The idea of all-embracing Putinism is nothing more than a propaganda balloon.

Russian Israel

Of course, it can be argued that Wood is only one more useful idiot in Putin’s service. But the situation can also be examined from a different angle. Germany and Brussels, for example, have a clear-cut interest in inflating the Russian threat, as this factor helps unite the EU and avert its disintegration.

The Russophobia in Germany has deep historical roots, often intertwined with nationalism. Many German liberals also attribute the rise of the right in Israel largely to the influence of former citizens of the Soviet Union. As they see it, it’s only because of the Russian immigrants that Israel is no longer ruled by enlightened types like Shimon Peres and Amos Oz. The Russians are to blame for everything.

There’s no doubt that some anti-liberal political forces in Europe and elsewhere are showing sympathy toward Russia. On the other hand, there are also anti-liberal forces raising the banner of a struggle against Putin – the Polish government, for example.

The fixation on growing Russian influence is a selective depiction of political developments. Remember, for example, that when the right-winger Francois Fillon led the polls in France for a time in 2017, analysts explained that “Putin’s man” was close to conquering the Elysee Palace. When Rex Tillerson was appointed secretary of state, it was claimed that yet another Trump confidant was being brought to Washington. But both Fillon and Tillerson were soon ejected from the political arena and now wield no influence.

If we’re looking for a leader who’s admired by almost all the anti-liberal forces around the world, it’s not certain that Putin is the right man. In fact, if we’re looking for the person who gains from the disintegration of Europe and the rise of the right there, as well as in America and the rest of the world, the trail leads not to Moscow but to a different city: Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the mutual friend of Trump, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Matteo Salvini and even Vladimir Putin. All of them have visited Jerusalem or plan to.

Should we infer that Netanyahu is pulling the strings of everything that happens around the world? No. But there’s also no reason to think Putin is that person behind the scenes.

The collapse of the Russian-involvement hypothesis is an opportunity to recall that the world today is deceptive and unpredictable. Many elements, some of them new, are playing a real or imagined part in global change: the rise of China, the ecological debacle, the strengthening of religion, the breakthrough of artificial intelligence, the shift in the relations between the sexes and in sexual perceptions in general.

The 20th century is over and done with, but the rules of the game of the 21st century aren’t yet fully clear and are changing all the time. Pointing the finger at Moscow is too easy a solution.

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