Lately I’ve noticed one tactic of the Kremlin Krew that has been getting increasing use. It goes something like this: “The Western media are constantly writing about how Russia is a dying country on the point of collapse…but then they also say it’s a rising power that poses a threat to world security! How can it be both?” RT Op-Edge writer Bryan MacDonald termed this inconsistency “Russophrenia,” so let’s use that term.
One problem with the Russophrenia concept is that in order to accept it as a valid argument, you have to buy into the pro-Kremlin fantasy that all media not regurgitating their line is part of one hive-mind collective known as “the mainstream media,” or “the Western media.” In the real world, however, that “mainstream” or “Western” media is made up of dozens of private and public entities which give a platform to a wide variety of views. A great deal of those views may come from insta-expert pundits who don’t know what they’re talking about, but they can also come from serious analysts and veteran correspondents who do. Guess which ones the Kremlin Krew tend to focus on when criticizing the “Western” media?
Every time I see articles about this “Russophrenia,” I tend to see the same names popping up. One is Paul Goble, who can be classified as low-hanging fruit. Julia Ioffe is often mentioned, but in my opinion she’s hit or miss. Lastly MacDonald mentions ex-Guardian correspondent Luke Harding. How bad is Harding? Well his article “Enemy of the State” was so bullshit-laden that it actually inspired the creation of a certain blog. Yes, Luke Harding was actually more responsible for the creation of Russia Without BS than RT. As is typical in these discussions, a handful of pundits and writers are brought forth and made representative of a monolithic “Western media.” This serves as rather ironic projection, as unlike the foreign press, nearly all media in Russia is controlled by the state or backers of the state, and some of it, including RT, openly declares that it is representing a particular viewpoint, i.e. that of the Russian government.
Is it true that the “Western media” has been simultaneously predicting Russia’s impending collapse and rising threat at the same time? Again, this requires us to believe that this nebulous collection of various outlets is in fact controlled more or less by one source, much like the Russian media. But as it is not, the explanation is simple: Different people with different viewpoints write about Russia. To date, I’ve yet to see any of these Russophrenia therapists present any scholarly analysis of Russian media coverage to demonstrate their hypothesis. As such, it is easy to rely on the availability fallacy, remembering only those articles that portrayed Russia as a dying nation or a rising threat. I could just as easily remember reading all sorts of articles in the 2000’s on the topic of rising living standards in Russia. If we look at the golden years of the 2000’s, when Russia was attracting massive foreign investment, we should suspect that at least some significant portion of the “Western media” was writing favorably enough about Russia to convince investors it was a good bet. But memory can be deceiving, so let’s attack this from another angle.
What if we’re talking about contradictory claims from one source, even one author? Is it possible for Russia to be a “dying country” or facing economic collapse while still being a threat or a rising military power? The answer is yes, depending on what you’re looking at. First of all, one reason Russia is accelerating toward collapse, even if people like Harding or Ioffe were calling it way too early, is because it is sinking money into the military in a delusional attempt to play superpower without the economic base to do so. Russian military spending as a percentage of the country’s GDP is actually on par with that of the US, if not higher in recent times. When 10% cuts were announced in the immediate wake of the economic crisis, the military was the only item on the budget that was exempt. Does that make Russia a global threat? No, but it can be a threat to its immediate neighbors.
Having a nose-diving economy and being a military threat are not mutually exclusive. Nazi Germany’s jury-rigged economy might have collapsed around 1940 had they not chosen to go to war. In doing so, Germany was able to profit off of everything from slave labor to stolen infrastructure, gold, occupation fees, etc. And speaking of Nazi Germany, they were constantly portrayed as this invincible war machine when in fact only 10% of the Wehrmacht was mechanized throughout the war, and in 1939 they had virtually no forces that could withstand a Franco-British offensive in the West and much of their tanks and other heavy weaponry consisted of Czech designs acquired due to the annexation of Czechoslovakia (Thanks, Britain!). So which is it? Terribly advanced German war machine poised to steamroll across Europe, or laughable, mostly horse-drawn military whose best tanks largely came from a country they annexed?
In case the analogy isn’t clear, the point is that even if you are dealing with one point of view and not many (as with independent media made up of dozens of outlets in as many countries), you will find contradictions when assessing a country. If one comes to Moscow today, they’d be rightly impressed at all the modernization and renovation that’s been going on here in the past couple years. While it’s easy for someone with experience to locate post-apocalyptic zones within the city itself, a casual observer or typical greenhorn expat would likely not notice. Get outside the city, and preferably the oblast, however, and it’s a different story. Sure, you can find the same dilapidation you see in Russia’s hinterland in countries like Ukraine, and perhaps the Baltic States or Poland for that matter. There’s just one problem- none of those states were blessed, or more aptly cursed, with the kind of natural wealth Russia had. Today’s Gorky Park or Moscow City are impressive indeed, but if that’s all this country has to show after consecutive years of triple digit oil prices, not to mention a powerful gas provider that was once one of the world’s leading companies, something went disastrously wrong.
Another factor is that indicators and projections can be extremely tricky. Take a look at these two articles by Mark Adomanis. In the first, Adomanis responds to Masha Gessen’s rather weak criticism of his work, demonstrating that yes, Russian demographics have indeed improved, and no, it’s not necessarily because Putin waved a magic wand and made it so. That article is from September of 2014. Yet in March of 2015, Adomanis has another article telling us that Russian demographics may have taken a decidedly negative turn. So which is it then? Are Russian demographics better or worse? The answer is that they can be variable. As he points out, they are largely due to economic factors and in late 2014, Russia’s economy took a nose dive. In fact, trouble was already on the horizon long before 2014; the massive capital flight had begun in 2013, for example. Putin merely accelerated the process with a series of idiotic, desperate, impulsive policy decisions. Another thing to consider when dealing with living standards, economics, or demographics is that there are fluctuations and then there are general trends, as with climate change. MacDonald points out that his three year stay in Russia (2010-2013) corresponded with some of the most prosperous years the country has ever experienced. This is, according to some calculations, more or less true, but the problem is that the general trend for Russia was negative and 2013 was a tipping point. Even if the war never happened and sanctions were never imposed, Russia would still be facing issues with regional debt, and plummeting oil prices would still be a problem.
Getting back to the topic of contradictions in analysis, you could actually do the same thing with the US, or any country for that matter. This year the US economy is growing and unemployment is actually shrinking. Yet at the same time, 1 in 4 Americans spend half or more of their income on rent and utilities. The recent fight for a $15 minimum wage is somewhat mitigated by the fact that $15 an hour isn’t a living wage in many states. America can be a great place to live if your white and from a well-off family, whereas being poor and black means potentially facing summary execution at the hands of the police. So which is it? America the prosperous free society, or America the land of debt peonage and police brutality? Well as it turns out, it can be both at the same time depending on what you’re focusing on.
And while we’re on the topic of America, why don’t we talk about the Russian media’s Ameriphrenia? Why is it Russian media is constantly telling us that America and the West are on the point of immanent collapse due to degeneracy and tolerance, yet they’re also a dire existential threat to Russia, so much so that Russia must have a heavily restricted, mostly state-run media and one wise leader? I mean America was supposed to break into six pieces back in 2010, and Europe has got to be at least one gay parade away from exploding into a massive EU-wide civil war between gay activists and Muslim immigrants, so why does Russia even need things like Roskomnadzor? Why is it so threatened by tiny opposition groups which are simultaneously laughably unpopular (somewhat true) and yet horribly menacing as they are allegedly funded by the US State Department. Ukraine is controlled by neo-Nazis, yet it’s also a failed state because neo-Nazis are constantly threatening the government they allegedly control. Questions about these claims are actually far more valid seeing as how unlike the Kremlin Krew’s “mainstream media,” which in fact isn’t some monolithic hivemind collective, the Russian media is largely-state owned and its owners are openly and enthusiastically loyal to their best buddy Putin. Therefore the mutually exclusive claims in their product are far more problematic.
In summing up, Russophrenia is basically a delusion. Different analysts in a diverse media produce different opinions. Extremely biased pundits with an agenda like Goble or Weiss are going to gleefully predict the impending collapse of Russia while simultaneously warning that NATO is somehow threatened by it. These cheerleaders/doomsayers are checked by more objective, realistic analysts like Mark Galeotti or Vladislav Inozemtsev. Though severely misinformed, American publications such as The Nation or FAIR run articles that support the Kremlin’s POV without any kind of direct funding from the Russian government. This is what happens when you have a free, if not flawed press.