employed analyst runs a certain risk when publicly speaking about the
possibility of humanity being destroyed in the foreseeable future. "Professional
myopia" or "immaturity in judgment" may be among
the less denigrating - "unprofessional hysteria" or "irresponsible conduct" the
more damning - reactions by colleagues. However, a plain extrapolation of
recent political developments in Russia into the future should lead
one to regard outright war with NATO as a still
improbable, yet nonetheless possible scenario. It is not unlikely that Russian public discourse will, during the coming years,
continue to move in the same direction in which
it has been evolving since 2000. In such a scenario, what is in store for the world
is not only a new "cold" but also possibly a "hot" and perhaps
even nuclear war.
This assessment sounds not only apocalyptic but also "unmodern," if not anachronistic. Aren't the real challenges of the 21st century global warming, financial regulation, the North-South divide, international migration etc.? Isn't that enough to worry about, and should we really be distracting ourselves from solving these real problems? Hasn't the age of East-West confrontation been over for several years now? Do we really want to go back to the nightmarish visions of the horrible 20th century? A sober look at Russia suggests that we better do just that: prudence may decrease the probability that a worst-case scenario ever materializes.
Such a scenario has become feasible again as Russian public opinion and elite discourse have - until August 2008, largely unnoticed in the West - made a fundamental shift, during the last years. The 1990s began with Russia's enthusiastic embrace of the Western value system and partnership; they ended with Russian scepticism and bitterness towards the West. This was less the result of NATO's expansion or bombing of Yugoslavia per se than an outcome of Moscow's peculiar interpretation of these actions.
In the early 1990s, Yeltsin failed to remove many of the Soviet Union's elites from their positions of power and influence. This gave the ancien régime's representatives an opportunity to impregnate post-Soviet political discourse with a reformulated, yet again fundamentally dualistic, world-view in which Russia and the US remain arch enemies fighting not only for control of the former Russian empire, but also deciding the future fate of humanity.
Initially marginal interpretations such as these were already making inroads into Russian mainstream discourse in the 1990s. With the beginning of Vladimir Putin's rise in 1999, however, they started to slowly but steadily move into the political center. Whereas Europe's recent scepticism towards the US has been, in many cases, an anti-Bushism, the Russian aversion towards America and NATO goes deeper. Today, the idea that the Western (or at least Anglo-Saxon) political leaders are virulently Russo-phobic is commonplace on TV talks show and in academic conferences. That events like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or Georgian attack on South Ossetia were fundamentally inspired, if not directly organized by the CIA is, in Russia today, a truism. That the CIA or another Western secret service is behind 9/11 or the Beslan tragedy are respected assessments frequently discussed in mainstream Moscow mass media. That the current behaviour of the West and its puppets in Eastern Europe has much in common with Nazi Germany's policies is an opinion with which many Russians would readily agree.
Such collective paranoia is not only regrettable, but also dangerous. The nation that is beholden to these bizarre views still has a weapons arsenal large enough to eradicate humanity several times. Until August 2008, it appeared that Dmitry Medvedev's rise might usher in a new stage in Russian-Western relations -- a prospect that, after the Russian-Georgian war and the disciplining effect it had on the new President, has become unlikely again. Today, there is little ground for hope that the deep contamination of Russian public discourse could be reversed, or at least its further evolution be stopped, in the nearer future. Unless something fundamentally changes in Russian-Western relations, we will -- as the Russian-Georgian war illustrated -- continue to live on the brink of an armed confrontation between two nuclear super-powers.
Dr. Andreas Umland teaches at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Upper Bavaria and is a member of the Atlantic Community. He edits the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" and compiles the biweekly Russian Nationalism Bulletin.
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