Is the Russian Menace really back, or is that just what they want us to think?

Russian bad guys. It’s enough to bring on your nostalgia for the Cold War, or at least for your old Tom Clancy novels.

Look, I’ll take the cheap laughs just as readily as anyone.

And yes, the conversation’s been full of indications that Russian operatives played havoc with the U.S. election, and yes, the conventional wisdom is that they wanted Donald Trump in the White House for their own nefarious reasons. I’m sure I wasn’t the first one to observe, sarcastically, that Vladimir Putin and his KGB товарищи have been clinking their glasses and high-fiving ever since.

It makes for a nice narrative, to be sure. Put an ignorant buffoon with no knowledge of foreign affairs and no appreciation for complexity in the White House, let him appoint a cabinet of kleptocrats, watch as the institutions and conventions at the foundations of your long-term adversary are undermined, and stand back as the Western alliance disintegrates.

And now another front in Moscow’s undeclared war: economic sabotage via the internet.

But is it true? We may never know conclusively, one way or the other. Certainly, there’s no shortage of theories, explanations, speculation, and who the hell knows.

But once again … let’s step back and ask whose interests are being served by the spread of such a narrative. Does it weaken Trump’s authority? Does it undermine his legitimacy? Does it bolster what’s left of the Democratic Party? All indications so far are “no.” How much authority or legitimacy Trump will enjoy in the first place is another question. Regardless of what we believe or how many conspiracy theories we consider, it’s clear that the people pushing these narratives are just taking advantage of our long-established need to find an easy scapegoat. Given the historical patterns in play since the end of the Second World War, not to mention his recent misbehaviour, our friend in the Kremlin makes a pretty convenient bad guy.

It’s human nature to be drawn to easy answers and facile narratives, and there are a lot of powerful interests that benefit quietly when we allow ourselves to think that way. We’ve spent nearly a century demonizing Russia and the Soviet Union, so the tropes and memes for a renewed campaign are there for the taking. And then again, look what’s happening to Putin’s popularity — among Republicans.

I’m not suggesting Putin’s an angel. And it’s too easy to suggest that he’ll play Trump like a set of bagpipes. All I’m suggesting is that we avoid the easy narratives, be wary of what we’re expected to believe, and keep our critical-thinking faculties sharp.

 

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