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Russia And The Danger Of Conspiracy Theories

26 June 2015

By Amir Taheri

The way President Vladimir Putin tells it, Russia is the victim of a great conspiracy designed to prevent it from claiming a position within the global networks of leadership. The Europeans are plotting to deny Russia the right to host the 2018 football World Cup. The Americans are trying to throw a lasso around Russia by building up the military forces of nations in its "near-neighborhood". The French conspire to sabotage plans for the modernization of Russia's navy by refusing to deliver two aircraft carriers that Moscow has bought and paid for. Last but not least, even the Arab states are trying to damage Russia's economy by forcing down oil prices.

Even inside Russia, Putin sees things through the prism of "sinister conspiracies." Non-governmental organizations campaigning for a more efficient disposal of nuclear waste are branded "agents of foreign powers", supposedly sent to reprobate Russia's nuclear industry; the Russian branch of Greenpeace is "a hotbed" of conspiracies.

Citizen committees calling for prison reform or more opportunities for women are "specially trained foreign agents" working for the overthrow of the government through a "velvet revolution". The hundreds of boy bands and girl bands that have mushroomed from the Urals to Kamchatka are vanguards of a frontal attack against Russian music and entertainment.

In the Putin narrative, Russia is surrounded by enemies. China harbors deep resentment at the fact that Russia annexed large chunks of its territory during the Soviet era. The Central Asian republics are trying to put as much blue-water between themselves and Russia as possible.

The Baltic republics go to bed praying for the day that the remainder of the Russian Empire crumbles as did its Soviet version.

What about Ukrainians? Well, need one say more?

Even Belorussia, the last Soviet-style anachronism in Europe is regarded as a crypto enemy of Russia.

There is no doubt that many countries near and far and big and small, are uneasy about Russia in its current manifestation. Russia is simply too big and, by any standards, too powerful to be ignored. However, there is no evidence of a global conspiracy to prevent Russia from claiming is proper place in the emerging patterns of international relations.

It is no surprise that Putin, a professional secret agent for much of his adult life, should believe that international politics works like the Russian Matryoshkas, with each doll nested within a bigger one.

Putin's conspiratorial analysis may appeal to the narrow nationalist fringe that provides the backbone of his continued popularity. All politically immature societies like to blame their own shortcomings on foreign plots.

In such societies few people could conceive of genuine political differences and legitimate rivalries. Anyone who disagrees with you on anything must be "a foreign agent" and a "traitor." And any nation that defends its sovereignty and dignity cannot but be a hostile power bent on your destruction.

That kind of mindset is bad for Russia and dangerous for others. Some of its negative effects are already manifest.

In Europe, the conflict over Ukraine has created a festering sore that affects the entire body politics of the continent while draining Russia's resources. Putin himself created the crisis with a 19th century imperial land-grab against Crimea while supporting, if not actually controlling, old-style secessionists against the government in Kiev.

In the Caucasus the virtual annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has created a climate of insecurity that affects the whole region beyond Georgia itself.

In Transcaucasia, rather than using its power and prestige to foster peace, Russia's one-sided support for Armenia has prevented a negotiated settlement of the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh.

Against good sense, Russia has done everything in its power to reduce pressure on North Korea's obnoxious regime, allowing Pyongyang to continue as a ticking bomb in that remote corner of Asia.

In the Middle East, Putin's Russia has thrown its weight behind Bashar Al-Assad's doomed regime in Damascus with help from the mullahs of Tehran. The net result has been one of the biggest human tragedies of the past half a century. In the process, Russia has put a great strain on its relations with virtually all Arab and Muslim countries.

Putin's bizarre chumminess with the mullahs in Tehran has revived old anti-Russian sentiments rooted in Iranian history for more than two centuries. The flirtation with the Houthis was mercifully brief but it did harm the cause of peace in unhappy Yemen by encouraging the hardliners to hang on to their dream of exclusive power.

Putin laments the fact that even the former republics of the Soviet Union are distancing themselves from "Mother Russia' by adopting the Latin or Arabic-Persian alphabets and replacing Russian with English as the most popular language for the new generations.

Even landlocked Mongolia now does more trade with far-away United States than Russia with which it has almost 3500 kilometers of borders.

In a broader context, Russia's relations with the European Union and the United States are more strained now than at any time since the 1950s and the start of the Cold War.

Putin has even played with a caricature of James Bond politics by sending Russian fighter-bombers to fly close to the airspace of several NATO nations. Last May Day he evoked the ghost of Brezhnev by presiding over a massive demonstration of military hardware in Moscow's Red Square.

While there is no doubt that the EU and the US must share part of the blame, there is no escaping the fact that Putin's penchant for braggadocio and taste for conspiracy theories have also contributed to this lamentable situation.

Russia is a great nation destined to make a major contribution to international peace and understanding. However, that cannot be done by bullying and shaking the iron fist towards weaker neighbors.

These days, people see Russian bombs falling on the heads of defenseless Syrians and Russian rockets hitting civilian targets in eastern Ukraine.

Accommodating Russia within the new emerging pattern of international relations is a major challenge for all concerned. However, little can be achieved in that direction until Putin casts a serious critical look at his core belief that politics equals conspiracy.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.  



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