EASTERN SHORE, MARYLAND – On May 21, the U.S. Department of State announced a $250,000 grant for “Exposing Russian Health Disinformation,” to which the Russian Embassy in Washington immediately responded that America had shown its “true intentions … during a difficult global pandemic.” Normally, I would not side with the Kremlin. But I cannot help wondering whether the Russophobia found in some segments of America’s political class and media has become pathological.
To be sure, in April, the U.S. Department of State warned that Russia, along with China and Iran, was stepping up its disinformation efforts in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. And yet, ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, mainstream media outlets and the Democrats (my own party) have been wringing their hands over Russia, often succumbing to sheer hysteria. Though the Kremlin did interfere in the election to undermine Hillary Clinton, thereby ultimately helping Donald Trump, the ensuing investigations found no evidence of the clear-cut “collusion” that many in America’s leading media outlets had long assumed was there.
As the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, conceded last year during an internal newsroom meeting, “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story.” In other words, The New York Times, like other mainstream publications, is in the business of shaping the narrative. As Walter Lippmann — required reading in U.S. journalism schools — pointed out almost 100 years ago, someone has to tell the “bewildered herd” what to think.
This is not to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin has nothing to answer for. His Kremlin has indeed sought to undermine Western democracies. It has stifled civil liberties at home, expanded Russia’s military and security forces, and waged war in Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Syria. It has even sent goons abroad to threaten or eliminate political opponents such as former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who barely survived an assassination attempt in the United Kingdom in 2018 (Alexander Litvinenko, another wayward spy targeted in the U.K. in 2006, was not so lucky).
But the United States has also meddled in other countries’ affairs, so that the Kremlin can always accuse it of applying a double standard. For Putin, who has not forgotten U.S. efforts to bring rock music and blue jeans to the Soviet Union, meddling is the only proper response to meddlers.
Moreover, when the West accuses Russia of undermining its democracies, the Kremlin can always say that it didn’t create the West’s problems of racism or inequality. As John Herrman of The New York Times showed in August 2016, while many of the hyper-partisan stories that go viral on Facebook are reported by Kremlin-linked media outlets like RT, they originate in America.
A more recent New York Times story on “Putin’s Long War Against American Science” points out that the Kremlin’s “disinformation blitz has coincided with a drop in vaccination rates among children in the United States and a rise in measles, a disease once considered vanquished.” Seriously? Conspiracy theories about vaccines have been a staple of U.S. political discourse for a generation or more.
When everything becomes Russia’s fault, Putin has no good reason not to engage in the kind of behavior he will be accused of anyway. Though Russia fell off the Western media’s radar during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now back in the limelight. Quoting a U.S. official, Yahoo News reported in early April that “The Russian intelligence services ‘likely are watching the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic’” to identify supply chain weaknesses and other vulnerabilities.
Should this really come as a surprise? The entire world has been watching Trump’s clumsy, feckless response, mostly with horror.
Western media outlets have also been busy examining Russia’s own experience with the pandemic, questioning its seemingly low infection and mortality rates. On May 13, a Bloomberg News headline initially stated, “Experts Want to Know Why Coronavirus Hasn’t Killed More Russians,” before being changed to read, “Experts Question Russian Data on COVID-19 Death Toll.”
According to Russian authorities, the country’s death toll as of May 27 was 3,968. Thus, even if the Kremlin was halving those figures, Russia still would have only around 7,900 deaths, which is five times less than the U.K., over 10 times less than the U.S. and less than half the death toll in New York City. Nonetheless, a Politico Europe article from May 24 explains in no uncertain terms, “How Russia’s Coronavirus Crisis Got So Bad.”
Of course, others in the U.S. have set their sights on China. After trying and failing to convince the rest of the world to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” the Trump administration has peddled an unsubstantiated theory that the pathogen was created in a lab in Wuhan.
Rest assured, this finger-pointing has been gleefully reported in Russia, where Putin has denounced the U.S. rhetoric and called for “mutual cooperation.” While the European Commission spokesman who recently accused Putin of trying to “undermine public confidence in the local authorities” in Europe probably isn’t wrong, one could accuse many Western news outlets of doing the same thing vis-a-vis Russia.
As the Trump administration and congressional Republicans seek to blame China for the pandemic, they should take note of the Democrats’ own experiences obsessing over Russia. Indiscriminately attacking Putin because Clinton lost the 2016 election turned out to be a losing strategy. The new blame game will only strengthen the burgeoning alliance between China and Russia.
Building new international partnerships is a better bet than sowing animosity. I am no fan of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, but I suspect that his success in exploiting the split between the Soviet Union and China could offer useful lessons for today.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School. Her latest book (with Jeffrey Tayler) is "In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones." Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org