The World the Russians Live In*

It is not exactly a secret that Russia and the United States (or the West more generally) are often capable of observing the same set of events in the international system and reaching wildly differing conclusions about what has happened. Of late this capability has been most famously encapsulated by Angela Merkel, who, “After one recent conversation with the Russian leader…remarked to President Obama that Mr. Putin was in “another world.””

For a less high-profile but more detailed display of the otherworldly qualities of prominent Russians’ geopolitical analysis one could turn to this Hanna Kozlowska article for Foreign Policy, in which she describes a two-hour panel-by-video conference arranged by RIA Novosti for journalists in America. Over the course of the conversation (that seems a charitable way to describe the event) “senior Russian lawmaker Sergyi Zheleznyak” and “Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former member of parliament” managed to suggest rogue Ukrainian militants might subvert U.S. military aid to inflict another Chernobyl, bizarrely link a Soviet symbol (the AK-47) with a non-existent neo-Nazi regime, claim Ukraine has returned “to the Stone Age”, and well, one could go on like this for quite a while. It seems to have been, in the words of Ray Hudson, a bravura performance of what Kozlowska calls “Kremlin agitprop.” All this raises the question, “Can they really believe this crap?” Which one must follow with, “Would it even matter one way or the other?”

Regarding the first question, I suspect the answer is a qualified “yes”. Writ large, there really are fundamentally different views of and approaches to things like political power, the role of the state, conceptions of nationhood, etc. underpinning Russian and Western response to the events in Ukraine. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that a different set of starting points endows you with a different set of conclusions. Still, it’s hard to believe the deputy speaker of the Duma actually loses sleep at night over Ukrainian neo-Nazis intercepting American shipments of M4s and using them to release a nuclear cloud of contamination in a self-inflicted Chernobyl scenario. Either way, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know with any certainty how deeply the Russians making these kinds of claims believe them; even if they really have been calculatingly employed to produce specific effects (and are not sincerely held), that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that gets admitted in a tell-all autobiography in ten or thirty years.

The more interesting question is the second, concerning whether or not it matters if these…interesting…statements are thought by their progenitors to be true. I don’t think it does. It’s tempting to claim that if they don’t actually believe what they’re saying, then that indicates some sort of meta-rationality to their behavior (they’re acting crazy as a negotiating tactic), and therefore these are people who can be reasoned with according to more or less common standards of self-interest. But this seems rapidly to lose efficacy; once the craziness of the rhetoric has been understood by one’s interlocutors to obscure an underlying willingness to behave rationally, it stands to reason that those interlocutors will apply a steep discount to any future crazy rhetoric, undermining its future utility in the process. For statements to shape future expectations they have to also inform the actions upon which those expectations will be formed. Even allowing for some slippage in how all of this (rhetoric, actions, expectations) is transmitted, you still wind up rather quickly in a situation in which it doesn’t matter if you believe the nonsense you’re spouting, because you find yourself acting as if you believed it no matter what. Otherwise there’s relatively little to be gained from spouting the nonsense in the first place.**

*It is not quite fair to say “the Russians”, since as the post makes clear I am really only referring to a specific set of Russians – those who believe and embrace the Kremlin’s worldview and version of events in Ukraine. But that is a much less concise headline
**It would be another thing entirely if Russian officials, media outlets, commentators, etc. were saying different things to different audiences, but the consistency of their messaging suggests this isn’t just a case of, for example, saying one thing for domestic consumption and something entirely different to the international community