Ksenia Semenova is a journalist, editor and public relations expert. She is currently the senior editor of the World section of the Russian-language site The Question.
Alexander III, the conservative Russian emperor who ruled from 1881 to 1894, once famously remarked to his ministers that Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy. “The others,” he said, “will go against us at the first opportunity.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin recalled these words in a 2015 speech, adding that he quite agreed with them. At the time, Putin held every card he needed to point to the West and proclaim that the world stood against Russia, leaving it with only its forces for protection. But as the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump moves to embrace Russia and question the West’s assumptions about NATO — just as the Europeans have begun to look for warmer ties to the east — Russia’s diplomatic environment has started to change. And one thing Putin certainly understands, as Alexander III did, is the Russian government’s need for an external enemy. This raises the question: In the new strategic environment that is emerging, who will that enemy be?
Replacing a Longtime Rival
For a century, with the exception of a few brief moments, the United States has been Russia’s main adversary. After all, blaming the Americans for all of Russia’s woes was a matter of convenience: The Kremlin simply fanned the flames of hatred, keeping its population’s attention fixed far from the problems unfolding inside its borders.
But for the most part, Russia considers Trump a friend — at least from my vantage point in Moscow. During the presidential primaries, Russia’s state-run television stations enthusiastically praised him, almost as if we Russians were preparing to vote for him, rather than the Americans. Many parts of the country — including the Kremlin, judging by its forgiving response to Washington’s recent expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats — have since celebrated his victory.
In losing an enemy, though, Russia seems to have gained a new problem. The country’s enmity toward America has long been the lifeblood of Russian politics, and without it, Moscow seems bent on finding a replacement — perhaps even one inside Russia.
Enemy of the State
In 2011, then-President Dmitri Medvedev called on the ruling United Russia party to endorse Putin’s decision to run for the presidency in 2012. He went so far as to declare that,
“By our common efforts we’ve managed to preserve and restore our beloved fatherland, our Russia. And we will not give it back to anyone. We will not give it back to those who want to destroy it, to those who deceive people by giving them empty and unfeasible slogans and promises.”
This blatant attempt to preserve the party’s grip on power through unconstitutional means triggered massive protests. Unrest periodically flared from December 2011 to July 2013, leading to the arrests of more than 5,000 people in Moscow and its outskirts alone. Some of those protesters remain in prison today.
It is no surprise that Putin quickly criminalized protests, even those that were peaceful, after taking office. By July 2014, the Kremlin had instated a law that automatically slapped jail sentences of up to five years on anyone detained at unsanctioned demonstrations more than once in a 180-day span. (And of course, nearly all demonstrations with the exception of pro-government ones are unsanctioned.) Now even a single demonstrator can be considered a threat to the state. The Russian government has also taken to targeting the friends and families of prominent activists, an effort no doubt intended to avoid opposition figures making martyrs of themselves.
Even so, the Kremlin’s crackdown was intended to cow a fairly small audience — the “liberal opposition” — that historically has had little influence on the majority of Russian citizens. In fact, most of the population already supports Putin. But to ensure its continued loyalty, the president has traditionally relied on propaganda and foreign scapegoats.
Shifting the Blame
This is by no means a new approach. The Soviet Union made generous use of propaganda — particularly against the United States — in the decades following the 1917 October Revolution. U.S. government hostility to the Soviet Union since its inception greatly aided Moscow’s efforts. Washington, for example, backed small anti-Bolshevik groups like the White Army while Vladimir Lenin and his successors denounced the evils of American capitalism. Though the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1933, the acrimony between them remained.
World War II pulled the United States and Soviet Union into a marriage of convenience. But it did not last long, and when the war came to an end, it was clear that their ideological differences had not been resolved. By 1945, mutual distrust and the fear of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe had laid the groundwork for the Cold War. The decadeslong struggle between two superpowers began, and a clash of ideological, economic, technological and geopolitical principles engulfed the world. From Moscow’s point of view, America — the epitome of the decaying West — was inimical to the socialist paradise that awaited the Soviet empire.
When Russia undertook its brief, albeit volatile, democratic experiment in the 1990s, hope that the two states could get along was rekindled. Shortly after Putin rose to power in 2000, however, he began to rebuild the wall between them. Throughout his time in office, Putin has consistently stuck to a single message: When Russia tries to rise from its knees, the United States seeks to knock it back down.
And for the most part this approach worked well for Putin, aided in no small part by some U.S. policies, including NATO’s expansion eastward. No matter how bad things got inside Russia, there was always someone else to pin it on. It wasn’t always Washington, either. Europe was occasionally portrayed as Moscow’s enemy, especially during Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Nevertheless, no country was as useful a scapegoat as the United States.
Opinion polls show just how successful Putin’s strategy has been. While 73 percent of Russians think their economy has stagnated, 88 percent are confident in Putin’s ability to handle international affairs. Thanks to the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts, citizens have also grown nostalgic for their Soviet past; 69 percent believe the dissolution of the Soviet Union hurt Russia. Their views of the West, meanwhile, are at an all-time low: Only 15 percent of Russians see the United States in a positive light, and only 31 percent have a favorable opinion of the European Union. That’s the result of a targeted media strategy. That’s the result of having an enemy to blame.
Big Shoes to Fill
The outcome of the United States’ Nov. 9 election may have thrown out Putin’s entire playbook. Trump is well-known among the Russian oligarchs: He has business ties with some, and once lived in the same building (the Miami Trump Tower) as others. By all appearances, the relationship between Washington and Moscow seems destined to get much friendlier once Trump takes office. Who, then, will Russian citizens hold accountable for their country’s problems?
Russia’s new nemesis should match its ambitions, which are neither small nor insignificant. Europe might fit the bill, but at the moment it has been swept up in a wave of nationalism, a sentiment near and dear to Putin’s heart. Europe’s far-right political parties espouse socially conservative beliefs that the Russian president has advocated as well, and National Front leader Marine Le Pen has declared Putin a defender of European values. As these far-right parties gain momentum across the Continent, Europe’s moderates may be loath to openly oppose Russia as they compete for re-election.
Perhaps China, then. But alienating the second-largest economy in the world, and a significant source of investment in Russian energy, transport and infrastructure projects, is not a good idea for a country already staggering under the weight of sanctions. Who else? Ukraine? Too small. Africa? Too poor. Australia or New Zealand? Too peaceful, and too distant. Clearly, finding a replacement for the United States is not so simple a task. Even terrorist groups like the Islamic State — a natural enemy to many countries — would not work, because the shared threat they pose encourages more cooperation than antagonism.
The Threat From Within
So, Russia will be forced to look inward, searching among its own for a political patsy. In many ways the hunt has already begun: Putin has labeled human rights activists “national traitors,” while residents with dual passports or citizenship elsewhere can be fined and possibly deported as spies. Nonprofits, charities and independent polling companies are required to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and are said to be engaged in “political activity” (a term so vague it can be applied to nearly anyone). These institutions are then barred from working with state organizations, and the financial reports they must submit are so complicated that they often get in the way of day-to-day operations. Although there are still a handful of independent media outlets in Russia, they are struggling to survive, and many have had to resort to self-censorship in an effort to avoid exorbitant fines, firings or closure.
The state has also found an ally in its crackdown: the Russian Orthodox Church. Several extremist groups belonging to the church have earned a reputation for trashing company offices, destroying books deemed heretical, vandalizing artwork and leveling accusations against atheist or opposition bloggers. This, coupled with the Kremlin’s own measures, has woven an oppressive blanket over Russian society intended to stifle any voice of dissent. A student who attends his first protest, a man who plays Pokemon Go in a temple, a woman who texts her friend about military tanks passing by — all could be deemed enemies of the state and imprisoned. As it currently stands in Russia, freedoms of speech and expression end the moment they are found to be slanderous to the country or its history, values and way of life.
Under these circumstances every Russian is vulnerable, and it is only a matter of time until people start asking themselves why. In 2012 they did just that, and Putin told protesters that the United States was the cause of their troubles. Now, with no foreign target at the ready, Russia itself could become Putin’s worst enemy. If the past five years are any indication, Russians have learned how to organize themselves into groups, whether small gatherings that help the elderly or large volunteer organizations that provide services more effectively than the state. And maybe, if Russians are given the chance to see how broken their country’s institutions truly are after decades of government mismanagement, they can take the steps needed to fix them.