One of the things that I find most mystifying about Western coverage of Russia is the tendency to treat obvious facts as wild-eyed conspiracy theories. So you have people saying “Putin and his lot are crazy, they think we’re trying to start a color revolution! Where on earth did they get that idea?” Meanwhile, in the plain light of day, the Obama administration makes a push to use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to support various anti-regime civil society groups. The, unstated, but nonetheless obvious, goal of using that money is to change Russia’s government. Indeed when someone wonders out loud “where could the Russians have possibly gotten such a crazy idea?” nine times out of ten the answer is “the newspaper.”
I spotted a particularly stark example of this phenomenon the other day in Time. Stephen Blank, a professor at the army war college and an oft-quoted expert on Russian affairs, said the following about NATO expansion (emphasis added):
There are attempts to sound out possibilities for expanding NATO further eastward. That tells me that they have bought an intelligence assessment that doesn’t exist, that is basically fabricated.There is nobody in this town or in Brussels talking about expanding NATO. It’s not going to happen anytime soon. Yet Russian intelligence and the government obviously believe this. And that’s already a sign of something dangerous.
What obscure sources could the Russians be using to come to such a wacky conclusion? How could their intelligence analysts have possibly determined that NATO is going to expand?
Well perhaps they went to NATO’s website where under a section helpfully titled “NATO expansion” it notes that ”Georgia and Ukraine – which were already engaged in an Intensified Dialogue with NATO – will become members in the future.” Or, perhaps, the Russians took note when the United States’ Secretary of State, in a meeting that included representatives of the Georgian government and other perspective members, said “I believe this summit should be the last summit that is not an enlargement summit.” Or maybe the Russians read the op-ed by Estonia’s defense minister in which he berated them for not understanding that Georgian NATO membership was inevitable: ”Did Russian officials not hear when on two recent occasions, most recently at May’s NATO Summit in Chicago, that Georgia was assured of admission into NATO?”
All of the above was from 5 minutes of casual Google GOOG +0.52% searching, not exhaustive archives-based research, and it seems obvious that Georgian membership in NATO, and NATO expansion more broadly, are talked aboutendlessly by people in both Washington and Brussels. Blank is mocking the Russians, and labeling them as “dangerous,” for believing something (NATO could expand) that is clearly true and that is publicly promised by people in positions of power and authority.
Is NATO expansion actually a good idea? That’s an entirely different question on which there can be good-faith debate: while I’m personally skeptical, I know that intelligent and well-reasoned people hold differing views on the desirability of expansion. But what is absolutely not up for debate is that NATO expansion is a very real, perhaps even very likely, possibility. The Russians aren’t being conspiratorial or lug-headed when they treat NATO expansion in a serious manner. In fact, given the frequency with which high-profile Western politicians talk about expanding the alliance, the Russians would be extremely foolish not to take NATO expansion seriously.
There are plenty of things that you can reasonably criticize the Russian government for, but inventing things out of whole cloth, or blaming them for simply reading the newspaper, doesn’t help anyone.