If Russia Didn’t Exist, Would We Have to Invent It?

So Many Interests Are Served by Vilifying Russia

Dan Kovalik, Scapegoat_Russia
The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and the Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia by Dan Kovalik. Photo credit: Skyhorse Publishing and Dan Kovalik / Twitter

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Dan Kovalik, the author of The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and the Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia. (Skyhorse Publishing, June 2017)

Kovalik argues that Russia is not and should not be our enemy. That the vilification of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin only serves the purposes of both the Pentagon and Congress. He talks about the recent rush to sanctions, the push for more military spending, and the degree to which President Donald Trump’s one and only uptick in the polls came as he was cheered on for the bombings in Syria.

Even though he is a critic of Trump, Kovalik views the president’s desire to reset relations with Russia as a positive. Nonetheless, he argues that both the media and the intelligence communities seem committed to preventing a rapprochement at all costs. He is most surprised by how aggressive liberals have been in helping with the demonization.

Even if Trump’s business dealings have been with corrupt and unsavory Russians, Kovalik wonders if this justifies the kind of relentless hostility that could lead to war.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman:

Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Not since duck and cover drills, Sputnik, the U2, the Berlin Wall, the missiles in Cuba, has Russia been so much a part of the everyday dialog of the United States. What happened? The Soviet Union fell. We were supposed to see the end of history, certainly the end of conflict with Russia. They were thought to be a natural ally after the Cold War ended, just as Germany and Japan became allies after the second World War. The Russian economy is still smaller than that of California, yet our fear, obsession, and vilification of Russia has never been greater.

Yes, Russia’s guilty of many things, Syria, Chechnya, hacking US elections, Ukraine, are all true, but we actively and currently support many governments that have done worse. It all begs the question as to whether some are singling out Russia in order to have a national enemy, and/or is Russia simply the best way to get at Trump given what certainly seems like a career of unethical and corrupt business dealings with unsavory Russians. To try and put all of this in perspective, I’m joined by Dan Kovalik. He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and he’s the author of a new book The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and the Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia. Dan Kovalik, thanks so much for joining us.

Dan Kovalik:

Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jeff Schechtman:

Great to have you here. I want to go back a little bit to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union, and a little bit about what the perception was at the time about what was going to happen vis-a-vis our relationship with Russia.

Dan Kovalik:

Well, as you hinted at in your opening remarks, I think the view was certainly from both sides that we would be friends, that Russia would be re-admitted to the community of nations, and more specifically, we know that an agreement was made between Secretary of State James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany was reunified, that NATO would not move, and the agreement was one inch east of Germany. As we know, that changed very quickly, but in any case, the idea was that we were going to have peace between nations. It is very clear that Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev firmly believed that, and obviously things did not turn out that way.

Jeff Schechtman:

Then we go to 2012, in the election in 2012, long before we got to the current situation, and you have Mitt Romney in 2012 talking about Russia being the greatest existential threat to the United States.

Dan Kovalik:

Yes. Even before that, so again, this promise was made that NATO would not move east of Germany, and even under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and then George W. Bush, NATO began to creep farther and farther east to the point where now, of course, NATO is on the border of Russia, which they see is very threatening and very aggressive on NATO’s part. Yes, as the years have gone by, you’ve had various periods in which the US began to not only, again, violate that agreement about NATO, but to start to paint Russia as somehow a revived enemy of the United States. There seemed to be a bit of a honeymoon period in terms of that under Boris Yeltsin, and even under Putin, because you’ll recall, in fact, that shortly before 9/11, George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin for the first time, and he said, “I looked into his eyes and saw his soul.” You might recall that.

Jeff Schechtman:

Yes.

Dan Kovalik:

Then after 9/11, he called George W. Bush, the first leader to call George W. Bush, offer his condolences, offered to help in Afghanistan. Initially, there’s this honeymoon period even with Putin, but as you say, as the years go by Mitt Romney and even Obama, of course Hillary Clinton began to say that Russia was this threat to the United States.

Jeff Schechtman:

In your view, talk about how that happened. How did that transformation take place?

Dan Kovalik:

It’s interesting because it’s come in fits and starts. One event, of course, was in 2014, you had the … really, a coup in the Ukraine, which was very divisive in the Ukraine. One of the first acts of the new government, which the US supported was to outlaw Russian as the second language, which was seen very negatively to say the least by the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, particularly in the east. There was a lot of unrest in the east as a result, and some folks in the east took up arms against the government. Ultimately Putin did support those armed groups in eastern Ukraine, and as we know, he also sent troops into Crimea. There was a referendum in Crimea which most countries did not recognize where the Crimeans did vote to rejoin Russia. They have been there ever since. This set of events in 2014 was obviously a huge inflection point that people still point to as some evidence that Putin is somehow our enemy. I would say that that is a big event.

Another big event, if we go back even a little further was in 2011, you may recall the United States ended up invading Libya, and it did so after it urged a resolution by the Security Council, which allowed the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya by NATO. Now, the Chinese and the Russians agreed to abstain from that resolution under the understanding that there would be a no-fly zone, but that NATO would not move towards regime change. In fact, as we know, the NATO very quickly moved towards regime change. Gaddafi ends up dying in this grizzly way, which is on videotape, it’s on YouTube. Putin felt very betrayed by this act. He thought this was another broken promise by the west, and ultimately this leads to his decision to intervene in Syria on behalf of Assad. But even back in 2011, Putin was making it very clear that he found what NATO and the United States did in Libya was reprehensible, and this upset a lot of people in Washington.

These are some events anyway that have led us to where we are today, or at least that people point to as justification for this aggressive stance towards Russia, though I suspect there are other deeper reasons for those positions.

Jeff Schechtman:

I want to talk about what you think some of those deeper reasons are, but before that, I want to talk about the difference in vilification that’s been going on between the vilification of Russia on the one hand versus Putin on the other, and the two are not always linked together.

Dan Kovalik:

No, that is correct. I think initially when the new Cold War, and I think it’s a Cold War that we’re in, a new one post-collapse of the Soviet Union. I think the initial beginnings of the new Cold War really were focused on the person of Vladimir Putin. In fact, we know that Barack Obama as President said he wanted to have a reset of relationships with Russia when Medvedev became President. I believe that was in 2008. Medvedev is seen, I guess, by the west as some good guy. Yeltsin was seen as a good guy. Putin was initially seen as a good guy again by George W. Bush, but ultimately he became the focus of this vilification as you say, and that it wasn’t so much about how bad Russia was, but it was how bad Putin was, including as an authoritarian leader who was also abusing his own Russian people. But as time has gone on, and it’s natural that this happens, and this is why it’s dangerous to vilify people, of course Putin and Russia, and the Russians have become conflated.

Now, every Russian is a potential enemy or suspect somehow, and anybody who meets with the Russians is somehow suspect. I even saw a bizarre story … I guess it’s true. You know, you never know whether these stories are definitely true, but I saw someone on a Delta Airline flight in the last couple days, when he was discovered that the person sitting next to him was a Russian national complained and said he didn’t want to fly with a Russian national because Russia invaded Crimea and Syria, and that the guy ultimately was kicked off the plane by Delta. You definitely see this initial vilification of Putin moving towards, really, racism, or against Russian people and the country of Russia.

Jeff Schechtman:

You talked a little while ago about deeper reasons for this. Talk about what you see as those deeper reasons.

Dan Kovalik:

I believe that the United States … If you go back to the old Cold War, and I mention some of this in my book, The Plot to Scapegoat Russia, even during the old Cold War, which was justified, or claimed to be justified by the fact that Russia was communist at that time, there was a lot of … a couple phenomenon could be noted. One, that the US would often attribute crises or problems in various countries to Soviet intervention when there was none, or when it was minor in order to justify an invasion of that country. We can name numerous cases, Nicaragua was certainly a case, even Vietnam was an example of this, where the Soviet intervention and support comes later, but initially, we claimed that we were there to fight to Soviet Union when, again, they’re either not there or barely there.

Again, the Soviet Union bugaboo was used as a justification for wars that otherwise would have very little justification. The other thing the US did was to overstate many times the military might, in particular, the nuclear capability of Russia, again, to justify our own military buildup. I think you see a similar phenomenon today, where the US, there is a bipartisan agreement on this issue. There is a bipartisan agreement that we need to continue this permanent war footing, that we need to spend more military aid, or more military money than almost every other country in the world combined. Even now you see that Trump had asked for significant increase in the US military budget when he came into office. In fact, the increase he wanted was equal or is equal to 80% of Russia’s entire military budget. Meanwhile, by the way, Putin was calling for a 25% reduction of military spending in Russia.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly, with 60% of the democrats voting for it,  gave Trump more money than he even asked for for the military, so I do believe that when you’re in a situation when you’re spending money on a military, that frankly is unjustifiable to the extent that we don’t have money for healthcare as we see. We don’t have money even to fix infrastructure. You have kids that are going to bed hungry in the richest country on Earth. There’s no justification for that. So you look for enemies, as we’ve done for a long time, and I think Russia is a convenient enemy, in part because of the first Cold War. Most of us have loathing in response to Russia. Even to this day, there’s movies showing … In fact, I heard the next Wonder Woman movie, she’s going to be fighting the Soviet Union. It’s going to take place in the ’80s.

Point being, they are our forever enemy, right? Even post Soviet Union and post communism. I just think it’s an easy target to drum up support for the military and for war, but also I think, and you see the sanctions that were just passed by the House, also is a glimmer into the next thing, and that is that the US … Look, I think the world economy is in crisis. The US economy is in crisis. You have more and more people in the world, more and more nations competing for less and less resources. Of course, this oftentimes does lead to conflict, including military conflict, and so countries use various machinations to get at these resources, or to muscle their way into other markets. These sanctions, one of the big things they’re going to do is try to force the European nations to stop buying their natural gas from Russia. Right now Russia provides most of the natural gas to Europe, with the goal being, of course, that they’ll get their natural gas from us.

This is just frankly a classic Mafia-like muscling in to a new market, having … Again, they claim it’s because Russia hacked the election, or Russia did this, Russia did that, but it’s an old style maneuver to gain a bigger market for our resources. I think that is part of it too. I think it’s very cynical is what it comes down to. I think it is a cynical maneuver to justify things that the American people otherwise wouldn’t go for. I’m not sure they go for this, by the way, anyway. The polls that I’ve been seeing, anyway, suggest that while the media’s very excited about the whole Russia-gate scandal that the American people are becoming less and less interested in it, even democrats are more inter … The rank and file are more interested in the bread and butter issues like jobs and healthcare, and not Russia, and yet it continues to be pushed on a constant 24/7 basis.

Jeff Schechtman:

It is also interesting you mentioned the bipartisan aspect of it before in an environment in which everything, literally everything is as polarized as it is, everything in society, everything related to politics, culture, et cetera, that the one thing there seems to be unanimity on are these sanctions against Russia.

Dan Kovalik:

Sanctions and war. The one uptick that Trump experienced in his polls was when he ordered the Tomahawk Missile attack upon Syria, you might recall. There is the one thing that unifies both parties, and it is war. Even amongst the so-called resistance against Trump, you rarely hear people critical of the fact that Trump sold $110 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is using those weapons in what I would call a genocidal war in Yemen. Millions of people are going to die because of that war. It is the greatest humanitarian conflict in the world. One, you don’t hear a peep about it in the media, and you don’t hear a peep about it from the democrats, and you don’t hear a peep about it from the protester on the street. This issue of war and peace appears to be off the table in terms of debate, even though, of course, as I mentioned, it obviously affects all these other issues, because the money spent, the trillions we’ve spent, trillions on these wars in Iraq, Afghanistan alone is money that’s taken out of the mouths of people in this country. That’s an obvious point, and yet that sort of spending is not even up for debate.

Jeff Schechtman:

The other part of this is that if it were not for the fact that Russia and Russian business dealings didn’t seem to be the Achilles heel of Trump and many people surrounding him, I wonder the degree to which Russia would be in the news as much as it is today.

Dan Kovalik:

It’s a good question, of course. Certainly, that has something to do with it, though of course, there’s some argument that the Clintons themselves had their own business dealings with Russia, and with other countries that were questionable monies that they got for their foundation, for example from Saudi Arabia, then Secretary of State Clinton, shortly after that was part of the approval process for selling fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, even had this case where Bill Clinton himself got a 500 … One of his biggest payouts forever for a speech, 500 grand from, I believe, a Russian investment company. Shortly after that, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State actually came out against sanctions against Russia. This was in 2012. The point being that a lot of people have connections with Russia. A lot of people have connections with a lot of countries, very unsavory ones, much, much more unsavory ones like Saudi Arabia, and yet no one seems particularly concerned about that. I don’t know. I just don’t know what it would be like if …

Obviously there’s enough smoke there for people to latch onto in terms of the Trump people’s connections with Russia, though a lot, frankly, just seem silly to me. The idea that people during the transition period can’t meet with the Russian Ambassador to maybe lay the groundwork for their policy when they take office after being elected. That just seems incredible to me, the idea that Trump can’t have a private meeting with Putin at the G20, I just … What can I say? That people would think that that’s somehow treasonous. We’re in silly-time at this point. I’m no fan of Trump, believe me. I think he’s terrible, but some of these so-called allegations aren’t really allegations at all, and yet, again, if you just meet with a Russian, you’re somehow tainted. That’s how crazy it’s gotten.

Jeff Schechtman:

Of course, that begs the question of the perception at least, that they’re constantly trying to hide something with respect to Russia.

Dan Kovalik:

Well, true, although it is a bit of a chicken and the egg thing. That is the Russian issue is obviously so toxic now, and has been for some time, I could see that leading people to hide things that may not even be … that shouldn’t be … what’s the word? That shouldn’t be viewed as wrong, but is now viewed wrong because every interaction with the Russians is wrong, if you know what I mean. The very high-pitched nature of the Russia-gate issue may be leading to more secrecy about Russian contacts, whether those contacts really should be considered a problem or not. I don’t know. As I say, I think that’s a bit of a chicken and an egg thing. If I were in Trump’s position right now, I certainly would not be broadcasting any of my Russian contacts, given the reaction people are having to them.

Now, I understand in the end, you get in trouble for the coverup more than you do the substance. That may happen here with Trump, but also people get in trouble for it because that’s what they do when they’re under attack and so …

Jeff Schechtman:

In a broader context, talk a little bit about what happens in your view if this vilification of Russia goes too far.

Dan Kovalik:

Well, I mean I think the worst case scenario is war, obviously. I don’t think that is off the table. I think most people would say, “Well, that’s not going to happen. That would be crazy, two nuclear powers having a war. That didn’t even happen during the first Cold War.” Yet, there’s some indications that that is not off the table. I saw there’s a Rand Corporation white paper where they tell NATO that they have to be … to prepare for a possible first strike attack on Russia’s military installations in Kaliningrad. Meanwhile, a couple weeks ago, a NATO fighter jet actually intercepted a Russian plane carrying their defense minister over Kaliningrad. You had the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists concluding that the current modernization, trillion dollar modernization of the US nuclear weapons is designed for first strike capability, not for defensive purposes, so I think people need to be cognizant of the fact that when you vilify a country like Russia to this extent, it does make the possibility of war greater.

I think people should be very concerned about that. These sanctions could also push us closer to war. You threaten a country’s livelihood. Russia depends greatly on its market for oil and natural gas. You start to threaten that, and that is what leads to wars. Countries view such things as acts of war. I think people need to take a breath here and really ask themselves what are the possible consequences of these actions.

Jeff Schechtman:

What do you see the role of the CIA and US Intelligence in all of this?

Dan Kovalik:

Well, I think that they, at least parts of them have a vested interest in continuing this confrontation with Russia. We know it, because some of the CIA officials have even publicly spoken, for example, during the transition period, saying that Trump better not think about détente with Russia. Clearly there are folks in the intelligence community who don’t want détente with Russia for, I’m sure, various reasons, but including the ones that I’ve already indicated, that it’s good for business, and good for … It used to be the business of America was business, but I think the business of America is war at this point. There’s a lot of people invested in that.

Jeff Schechtman:

Dan Kovalik. His book is The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and the Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia. Dan, thanks so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Dan Kovalik:

Thank you, and I’d love to do it again.

Jeff Schechtman:

Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating it and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at 2017 G20 summit (President of Russia – CC BY 4.0).

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2 responses to “If Russia Didn’t Exist, Would We Have to Invent It?”

  1. TheAtlanticSucks says:

    The problem isn’t Russia exactly. It’s the criminal organizations that have a grip on the Russian government and industries. The oligarchs stole their billions from the Russian people during the era of privatization after the USSR collapsed. These guys know how to loot national treasuries. They got Yanukovych to look the other way while they looted Ukraine. They’re here in the US and in other countries running financial scams that are difficult to fight.

    The US could become like Russia if the billionaires and multi-millionaires involved with the Koch network succeed in slashing taxes to the point that the Federal government goes belly-up like the USSR. These guys would be the first to buy Federal assets during a serious financial crisis. Imagine life under the thumb of such people.

    I have sympathy for the Russian people. I wish we could join with them in fighting their oligarchs and our billionaires intent on power and wealth at the expense of everyone else.