Putin, Skripal and the powerful ideological force of Russophobia

Illustration by Abode of Chaos

The attempted murder of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England – a story befitting the top shelf of espionage literature – has provoked both furious condemnation, and very carefully worded propaganda, from every corner of the international community.

The British government, along with Canada, France, the US, and Germany (and both NATO and the EU Foreign Affairs Council) have hurried to blame Russia. In the absence of concrete evidence, or the completion of an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, they claim it is “highly likely” the incident was a state-sponsored attack orchestrated by the Kremlin. Worse yet, it “seems” there is a “likelihood” the Russian state let another group acquire a military-grade toxic nerve agent to deploy against Skripal, a double agent who once passed secrets to Britain’s MI6.

Did Vladimir Putin order the nerve agent attack? He may have. Though as Thomas Walkom wrote in a recent Star column, before pronouncing Russia guilty, we ought to demand evidence. Why would he imperil relations with the West by trying to assassinate a former spook, much less one who had already been jailed by the Russians in 2004?

We should be skeptical of denunciations launched after a party line quickly forms on a topic, particularly one with global implications. This latest diplomatic row threatens to further increase tensions between the West and Russia, hurtling nuclear-armed powers onto a precarious collision course. The post-Cold War world, it appears, is a canard.

Indeed, reaction to the attempted assassination of Mr. Skripal would suggest the geopolitical standoff that defined international relations in the latter half of the twentieth century never ended. World leaders remain ensconced in the binary mindset of “goodies” and “baddies” (with our own ruling class as the good guys, of course). The spectrum of acceptable opinion on world events is narrowly circumscribed; contempt for alternate perspectives is commonplace. Russia is our enemy. A sworn adversary. Dare question this orthodoxy and you are mocked as a “patsy,” a “dupe”, or a “stooge.” It is nothing less than a dangerous new McCarthyism.

Global politics is thus portrayed as a hierarchy of in- and out-groups. Rightful membership to the ‘international community’ relies on adherence to a particular set of norms. Russia, or any other state that wavers from acceptable discourse or behaviour, is separate from the Anglosphere of ‘democratic values’, and portrayed as a serious potential threat to the configuration of the international system. Perceptions of the other are constructed in our terms. The depiction of Putin as an authoritarian oligarch validates generational myths of Russia’s political backwardness, while the reaffirmation that Russia brazenly violates Europe’s geopolitical rules asserts the ideal of a ‘free’ Europe; that is, free of Russian ‘belligerence’.

One need not look further than Putin’s recent state of the nation speech in which he showcased, to great shock and terror in the West, two new nuclear delivery systems developed in response to the US pulling out of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty signed with the Soviet Union, long regarded as a cornerstone of world security and denuclearization efforts. As is routine, less trepidation was expressed toward President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, a renewed strategy that will see arms control measures take a backseat to the bolstering of weapons stockpiles and a more aggressive stance toward “hostile” states including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

Obscured by this antagonistic reciprocity, and the unchallenged, oft-repeated rhetoric that exacerbates it, is any awareness about the mistakes of the past. March 20 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, an extrajudicial war launched under false pretenses which has resulted in the deaths of at least half a million people. We must be vigilant against all forms of ‘fake news’, or the dubious claims and allegations that give rise to its preponderance.

To quote the late Philip K. Dick, we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, and by political groups. So, we must ask ourselves, what is real? We must insist that the messages, language and images we consume from politicians and mass media are constantly examined and appraised. After all, it is belief that can so easily be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.

Harrison Samphir is Canadian Dimension’s web editor.