America’s Russia Anxiety has diminished in the last couple of years, but it doesn’t go away. As so often in history, the anxiety comes and goes. Sometimes it disappears. But it’s a persistent cycle in international affairs that might partly come to define the Biden presidency, perhaps even in surprisingly positive ways given Biden’s hand-on dealings in foreign affairs over many decades and his exceptional range of international contacts.
The great fear about Russia — that it had the capacity to control American democracy from afar — seemed to be disproven by the 2020 election. But Joe Biden argued late in October, two weeks out from polling day, that ‘the biggest threat to the United States right now, in the sense of breaking our security and our alliances, it’s Russia.’
If Biden was right, then he wasn’t expressing the Russia Anxiety. Instead, he must have been articulating something different: a measured view based on evidence. But was he? Biden hasn’t always aligned language and evidence when it comes to Russia. Only time will tell whether he will pursue as president a Russia policy guided by reason or anxiety, by engagement or contempt. No doubt it will come down to timing and events, though he has a say in shaping these.
In the last year or two, a few Anglophone journalists have published work which assumes an ultimately unprovable carapace of conspiracy — that the Russian government really wants to destroy the West — but does so in a low rhetorical key, instead showcasing formidable research. You might want to read Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People, in this vein.
Belton establishes a case to answer, one with which foreign policy experts in Biden’s administration will have to contend in imaginative ways.
If the likes of Belton and even Biden are no longer giving voice to an open Russia Anxiety, others still are. The Russia Anxiety is expressed by aggressively empty rhetoric; it emerges through wilful artifice or straightforward ignorance; it deals in stereotypes; and it conflates every aspect of the impossibly various reality of Russian life, culture and discourse into a single ‘Russia’.
Take the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Thomas Powers discusses President Trump’s relationship to Russian government and business in the context of his re-election campaign. ‘Trump’s true relationship to Russia is far from the only question about his tenure in the White House needing investigation,’ Powers writes, ‘but it is probably the biggest one—unless his efforts to engineer his reelection are a bigger, darker, more troubling thing even than Russia.’
Read the second half of the sentence again: ‘unless his efforts to engineer his reelection are a bigger, darker, more troubling thing even than Russia.’
You probably know what he means. I think I know what he means: that he uses ‘Russia’ as shorthand for the Russian government, or its president, or the Russia scandal in US politics. But I’m not completely sure. Might he actually mean what he has written: that the biggest country in the world is the heart of darkness? Language about Russia so often takes on an aggressive life of its own, distorting the more limited claims that authors are actually trying to convey.
But words matter. The historic cycle of the Russia Anxiety rumbles on.
And yet events and personalities have always shifted and interrupted the dynamics of the cycle. Who knows what Biden can do?