Russia’s “besieged Kremlin” mentality: Déjà vu all over again

The main objective of the Putin propaganda machine’s “America wants to dismember Russia and overthrow her government” line is obvious: to turn the tables by turning the victims into aggressors and the invaders into victims. In fact, Obama chose to appease the Kremlin in the name of the so-called “reset,” a naïve policy which collapsed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna l March 11, 2015

Putin’s “War Council” served together as KGB agents in St. Petersburg in the 1970s and 1980s. From left: Vladimir Putin, Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Ivanov and Alexander Bortnikov (AP/Reuters)

A paranoid “besieged fortress” mentality has characterized the foreign policy thinking of the Kremlin for centuries: from the era of the Muscovite Tsars to the days of the mass-murdering Bolshevik Commissars and their current post-KGB successors. Thus, when reading Nikolai Patrushev’s claims about America’s supposedly sinister, aggressive intentions vis-à-vis Russia, one may be very tempted to simply chuckle, roll one’s eyes, and dismiss the far-fetched Chekist allegations. Déjà vu!

We have heard all of this before, both from Moscow and her Western apologists and agents. These charges should not go unanswered, however, because they are part of Moscow’s worldwide propaganda campaign against America, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.

Here is what Patrushev (b. 1951) – a close Putin ally, friend and part of the “War Council” who joined the KGB in the mid-1970s and served as the head of the FSB from 1999 to 2008 – had to say in a Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview published on February 11:

“The situation in Ukraine is being used as a pretext for the active ‘repression’ of our country (…) The Americans are trying to involve the Russian Federation in an interstate military conflict, cause regime change [in Russia] and ultimately dismember our country via events in Ukraine (…) The U.S. administration expects [its recent] anti-Russian measures to decrease the quality of life for the population, give rise to mass protests and push Russian citizens to overthrow the current government using the scenario of the ‘color revolutions’ (…).”

Patrushev also threatened that “in today’s difficult times, when the U.S. and its allies have taken the path of confrontation with the Russian Federation, it is necessary to recall again and again the lessons of history,” further alleging that “the rebirth of Nazism in the Baltics and Ukraine is occurring with the connivance of Europe and even the incitement of the U.S.”

The Kremlin’s broken record

If this sounds like old broken-record Soviet propaganda – repeated ad nauseam for decades – it is simply because it follows the very same template: the “enemy” (Britain in the 1920s, the U.S. during the Cold War and after) is plotting to encircle us, invade, and overthrow our political system. Similarly, during the 1930s, the German National Socialists also based their fear-mongering propaganda on the allegation that Germany’s neighbors were trying to encircle the Reich. Aggressive totalitarians planning to attack and conquer others are usually the most likely to resort to shrill “encirclement propaganda,” which serves to officially justify their rapaciousness and land-lust (coupled with threatening military build-ups) by presenting them as defense-through-attack.

The “Third Rome”

In Russia’s case, the Kremlin’s “encirclement” propaganda, which has a very long history, is also rooted in the empire’s Muscovite-Orthodox “exceptionalism.” Vladimir Putin may dislike American exceptionalism as allegedly arrogant, but the Russians have rarely been humble about their country’s perceived place in the world. Those who have read Russian history are no doubt familiar with the notion of “Third Rome” – an early sixteenth-century idea developed by the monk Philotheus (Filofey) of Pskov in a letter to the Grand Prince of Moscow, Basil III – which described Muscovy as the rightful heir of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Philotheus wrote: “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!” Thus, the ideology of “Third Rome” expressed a xenophobic kind of exceptionalism wherein Muscovy stood as Orthodoxy’s sole and final bastion of defense against its enemies, i.e. both the Muslims to the south and the “Latins” (Catholics) to the west.

This besieged Kremlin worldview cannot be attributed solely to Orthodoxy. The princes of Kyivian Rus’ (Ruthenia) maintained decent relations with Catholic Europe even after the Schism of 1054 when the Byzantine Church split off from Rome. However, the characteristic virulent Russian hostility towards the West, even more intense than that against the Mongols and Muslims, became the ideological touch-stone of the Muscovite Tsardom that emerged out of the Mongol yoke, which lasted for almost three centuries in northeastern Rus’. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Ruthenians that were liberated from Mongol rule by the Lithuanians and became integrated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – the ancestors of the modern-day Ukrainians and Belarusyns – developed much more liberty-friendly and Western-oriented cultures than that of Muscovy-Russia. Thus, Orthodox Ruthenians frequently found themselves fighting on both sides of the “clash of civilizations” on the eastern borderlands of the West.

Muscovy’s “Third Rome” ideology continued to influence tsardom’s foreign policies even following Peter I’s “Westernization” of the empire during the early eighteenth century. Peter wanted to make Russia “European” and integrated his empire into the European state system.

However, the impact of the anti-Western Muscovite xenophobic worldview was counterbalanced during the imperial period (1721 – 1917) by the fact that the Russian elites became Westernized, at least to a significant degree. All of this changed in late 1917 with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, from whom Russia’s current regime is directly descended, and who – Patrushev ought to recall – actually were anti-Russian radicals transported into Russia by her enemies, the Germans, to subvert and overthrow the empire’s government and take Russia out of the war. Soon thereafter, in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks handed over Ukraine, the Baltics, and the entire Intermarium to the Germans, thereby helping “dismember” the empire, in exchange for a “breathing spell” allowing them to fight a civil war against Russian anti-communists (“Whites”).

Justifying aggression

According to communist propaganda, Soviet Russia was the “fatherland of the world socialist revolution,” standing in direct opposition to the evil and decadent “capitalist imperialist” powers bent on encircling and destroying her. After all, the money-grubbing “exploiters” in New York, London, and other Western capitals, feared the “workers’ and peasants’ state” as an existential threat to their economic interests (i.e. the ability to continue exploiting the world’s proletariat).

Thus, exporting the revolution – through force or subversion – became not only the right but indeed the obligation of the Soviet Union, even if, at times, it might have to be temporarily suspended for tactical reasons. In such a context, Soviet militarism and expansionism were legitimized as self-defense measures forced upon the “peace-loving” Marxist-Leninist state by a hostile world full of perpetually plotting enemies. After all, Lenin asserted that “it is not the defensive or offensive character of the war, but the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat, or — to put it better — the interests of the international movement of the proletariat — that represent the sole criterion for considering and deciding the attitude (…) to any particular event in international relations.” In light of such dialectical sophistry, even naked Soviet aggression, such as the invasion of Finland in late 1939, could be presented as “defensive.”

Clearly, this Soviet propaganda Weltanschauung found fertile ground in the historical traditions of Muscovite “Third Romism” and Russian Occidentophobia, although we should remember that anti-Westernism was a core feature of not only Russo-Soviet communism. It is also apparent that the post-Soviet regime of Putin, Patrushev, and other Chekists has been feeding on whatever elements of both the Muscovite and Soviet propaganda myths that happen to suit their needs at any particular moment, especially the drive to rebuild the Kremlin’s “lost” empire.

The Nazi-Jewish-Gay-American conspiracy: How Moscow sees the world

Thus, the specter of “Nazism” is resurrected in attacks against Ukraine and the Baltic states, as if Moscow was fighting the Second World War all over again. Never mind that Putin’s idol, Stalin, helped Hitler start the war by carving up Poland, the Baltics, and Romania; and never mind that pro-German sympathies and collaboration in Ukraine and the Baltic countries were in many ways the product of Soviet mass-murder and terror in those lands (in fact, the Estonians and Latvians had been quite anti-German before the Soviet takeover in 1940). Simultaneously, Putin’s propaganda machine depicts Russia as the champion of Orthodoxy and Christian traditionalism locked in a struggle for survival with the decadent, degenerate Judeo-Protestant-Catholic West, whose aim is to spread liberalism, democracy, and the LGBT counter-culture to Central Europe, Ukraine, and ultimately to Russia itself. Hence, in many a Russian mind, it is once again the late fifteenth century and “Holy” Muscovy, the last redoubt of Orthodoxy, is yet again compelled to defend herself against the incursions and conspiracies of the “Latin” West.

Although all these messages are logically and historically inconsistent, they are tailored for many different audiences: Red Army and KGB veterans; Orthodox chauvinists; Russian nationalists and imperialists; Western nationalists and conservatives, particularly of the “paleo” type; libertarians; pacifists and “non-interventionists”; anti-NWO “conspiracy theorists,” etc.

Diverse target audiences have their own reasons to buy into or pretend to believe Kremlin disinformation. For example, paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and European nationalists like Marine Le Pen find the traditionalist rhetoric coming from Putin more palatable than the anti-Christian pro-LGBT cultural relativism spouted by Obama. Ron-Paul-style libertarians are fed up with “foreign wars” and do not trust the U.S. government line; being “non-interventionists” as a matter of principle, they will grasp at any talking points against American involvement on behalf of Ukraine. People will often believe what they want to believe, and others yet are simply not averse to Russian money (pecunia non olet).

The aggressor playing the victim

The main objective of the “America wants to dismember Russia and overthrow her government” line is obvious: to turn the tables by turning the victims into aggressors and the invaders into victims.

The irony of Patrushev’s charges is, of course, that – as has happened so often throughout history – Moscow is committing precisely the same sins that it is accusing others of perpetrating!

Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine are clear examples of the Kremlin’s attempts to dismember “captive nations” attempting to escape Moscow’s suffocating embrace and to overthrow national governments that do not wish to be her vassals. The Intermarium peoples may also recall other such examples in Russian and Soviet history, such as the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The myth of America’s anti-Russian plot

Recent history also shows how far-fetched are Patrushev’s allegations. During the 1990s, the U.S. actually attempted to prop-up post-Soviet Russia to stabilize the post-Soviet zone. In 1994, the Clinton administration convinced Ukraine to surrender its nuclear weapons, inherited from the Soviet Union, to Russia – in exchange for Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s borders (an international agreement which Moscow obviously violated). Rather than contemplating ways to “encircle” and “dismember” Russia, Americans and other Westerners longed to finally enjoy the “end of history” and the “peace dividend.” Those who warned that Russia would eventually attempt to reconquer its empire were dismissed as paranoid Russophobes with an anachronistic “Cold War mentality.” At least some in DC also seem to view Russia as a troublesome but perhaps necessary partner to help balance against the growing Chinese threat. George W. Bush started out his presidency declaring the need for firmer policies towards post-Soviet Russia, but, after 9/11, a tension developed between his support for the “captive nations” and Bush’s desire to collaborate with Putin on the anti-Islamo-terrorist front. At the end of “Dubya’s” presidency, Putin was able to invade Georgia without many serious consequences. In fact, Obama chose to appease the Kremlin in the name of the so-called “reset,” a naïve policy which collapsed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Had the United States truly pursued the strategy that Patrushev and other post-Soviet leaders attribute to it, Washington might have easily taken advantage of the internal chaos and decay in Russia during the 1990s. Instead of helping Russia, we might have pushed it further into the abyss of its own making. We might also have supported the creation of an independent Siberian republic between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific, the centrifugal native forces in the Islamic Northern Caucasus striving to break away from the so-called Russian “Federation” (in reality still an empire, albeit a reduced one), and the separation from Russia of the Kaliningrad Enclave, which now serves as a loaded gun pointed at Poland, Lithuania, and other Baltic nations. Instead, we chose to err on the side of stability and we hoped that “changing times” would modify and soften Russian foreign policy by magically erasing hundreds of years of expansionism and empire-building. The post-Soviet regime in Moscow should be thanking America for precisely and generally not taking advantage of Russia’s internal chaos during the 1990s.

But perhaps the world would be a much better place today.

In spite of our preference for ahistoricism, however, we must learn from the past. The Moscow-backed “separatists” have violated the Minsk cease-fire agreement and continue to attack the Ukrainians. If we do not wish to see Ukraine reintegrated into the Kremlin’s empire, we must provide sufficient aid to the Ukrainians – including weaponry – to help them stop the “separatist” advance. The Russians will only stop if they run into formidable resistance and are compelled to pay for every inch of captured land a price in blood and treasure that will prove prohibitive and unsustainable for them.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.