'Russophobia' is a label to deflect criticism from the Kremlin

In an article published last week, Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin argued that ‘Russophobia exists and that it affects politics in the West’. However, the driving mechanisms of Western policies are primarily not Russophobia in the sense of an irrational fear of Russia but are for the most part based on entirely rational analyses, rebuts security expert Hannes Adomeit.

by Hannes Adomeit

Whereas Ragozin's thesis that ‘Russophobia exists and that it affects politics in the West’ per se is uncontroversial, the author overstates the significance of this phenomenon for Western policy towards Russia and the post-Soviet space. More importantly, however, like the Kremlin, he throws Russophobia and criticism of Putin and his domestic and foreign policies into the same analytical bag.

salisbury Two GRU-agents  in trainstation Salisbury on CCTV-camera. Picture Metropolitan police 

He falls victim to the narrative fostered by a narrow circle of leaders, many of whom with a background in the security services, that their interests are identical with those of the country as a whole. The de facto corollary of this insidious ‘the Kremlin is Russia’ claim is the idea that any criticism of Putin and his narrow circle of friends and associates from inside Russia is tantamount to treason and that its external variant is ‘anti-Russian’, based on ‘Russophobia’.

But what is Russophobia – in general and in the author’s understanding? Like acrophobia (fear of heights), Russophobia literally is the fear of Russia and things Russian. At some point, the author indeed defines the term as the ‘irrational fear of all things Russian’ and thus de facto considers it as a subcategory of ‘xenophobia’. It turns out, however, that the author doesn’t really write about Western fears of Russia, about concern and anxieties as regarding the direction of the policies of the Kremlin, but about Western perceptions of the Russian people and Russian culture.

Thus, he asserts that both American and European policy makers had long based their Russia policy ‘on the idea that “they [the Russians] will never be like us”’; that they represented ‘some other [inferior] civilisation’; that they were a ‘non-European (read Asian and therefore inferior) nation’; and that their make-up was ‘inherently (that is, biologically) incompatible with the Western approach to governance’. In contrast, he charges that Americans were caught up in a ‘romance with East European nationalism’ and that they and the Europeans in their wake had mindlessly and recklessly supported ‘ethnonationalist forces in the post-Soviet countries’ whose leaders were carrying out the ‘dystopian project of [constructing] monoethnic and monolingual societies’.  

Far from encouraging ethnonationalism in post-Soviet countries, the West attempted to discourage it

Such claims as several others are erroneous. Far from encouraging ethnonationalism, the West attempted to discourage it. The approach correspondingly adopted was stated as early as August 1991 in the ‘Chicken Kiev speech’, the nickname for a speech given by the then US president George H. Bush in Kiev. ‘Americans’, he told the members of the Ukrainian parliament, ‘will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny [that is, Moscow’s] with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.’

In line with the Kremlin’s perspectives, Ragozin misconstrues legitimate aims for national emancipation and independence (four months after the speech, 92.26% Ukrainians voted to withdraw from the Soviet Union) as some sort of anti-Russian plot. In essence, he ex post facto provides legitimacy to Moscow’s imperial construct in the shape of the USSR, which according to Putin was simply ‘Russia, only under a different name’.

The author furthermore adds an unconvincing twist to the understanding of Russophobia by asserting that Russian ultranationalists considered Putin to be the country’s ‘chief Russophobe’. How so? It was because the Russian president had ‘opened the floodgates for mass migration from Central Asia’ [and thereby] altered the racial composition of large Russian cities’. This had provided the ‘commonly cited rationale for dozens of Russian ultra-nationalists to join [the Ukrainian right-wing nationalist battalion] Azov and suchlike volunteer formations in Ukraine to fight against their own [Russian] compatriots in Donbas.’ This reviewer, however, has never come across any such evidence nor is there any confirmation of corresponding claims in the study by Nikolay Mitrokhin’s about the background, composition and activities of Russian nationalists in Ukraine published in No. 3-4/2019 of the specialist German journal Osteuropa.


Whatever the case may be with home-based Russian Russophobia, what about the purported relationship between its Western equivalent and the Russia policies of Western governments? We are told that ‘the bulk of Russophobia today comes in the shape of conspiracy theories that strive to find Russia’s traces in everything that happens under the sun […], in the myth about an omnipotent Russia that meddles everywhere, striving to conquer the world’. Rather than ‘the arrogance and intellectual impotency that span entire Western society’, Russia is held responsible for the West’s internal problems, including the election of Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum. Russia was the West’s ‘new bogeyman’.

Ragozin's assertions feed into the Kremlin’s narrative that both Yeltsin’s and Putin’s Russia had stretched out the hand of partnership but that the West had rejected it in a mood of triumphalism and arrogance 

That characterization is essentially a synonym for the incessant charges of those who claim to really ‘understand’ Russia – the Russlandversteher, in German – that the country, its leader and its policies are being ‘demonized’ and that the US and European ‘mainstream media’ and self-styled ‘experts’, often for reasons of profit and career advancement, were providing their governments with erroneous assessments which in turn were producing wrong, if not dangerous and disastrous, Russia policies.

Ragozin lends credence to such charges when he writes that the advocates of conspiracy theories ‘have aggressively been trying to elbow out real Russian expertise’ and that ‘misguided American policies [have] contributed to the current standoff between the West and Russia’. Such assertions seamlessly feed into the Kremlin’s narrative that both Yeltsin’s and Putin’s Russia had stretched out the hand of friendship and partnership but that that the West had rejected it after the end of the Cold War in a mood of triumphalism and arrogance. ‘Putin’, as Ragozin writes, ‘realised early in his reign that building bridges with the US-led West […] is a hopeless endeavour’.

mh17 site jeroen akkermans 10 nov 2014Site of the crash of flight MH17 in East-Ukraine. Photo Jeroen Akkermans Flickr.com

The ‘new bogeyman’ viewpoint reveals the crux of the matter. Contrary to that view, the driving mechanisms of Western Russia policies are primarily not Russophobia in the sense of an irrational fear of Russia and things Russian but are for the most part based on entirely rational analyses and perceptions of the Putin System and its domestic and foreign policies. In fact, several times the author pays tribute to current realities. He acknowledges that Russian propaganda is ‘blatantly using’ the Russophobia charge to play victim and that the Kremlin, in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, is rejecting ‘any suggestion that Russia might have been involved in some wrongdoing’, be it attempts to influence the US presidential elections, the in-flight destruction of the Malaysian airliner by a Buk missile or the Salisbury gas attack. He also recognizes that Putin’s Russia had conducted ‘aggressive policies’ in its neighbourhood.

The case, that paranoia rather than sound analysis informs Western Russia policies is weak

The cases of official Russian denial are not limited to the three mentioned by Ragozin. There are lots of others. Paraphrasing the Kremlin’s denials, they include the following:

  •  Russian authorities have neither undertaken nor authorized disinformation and destabilization campaigns and interfered neither in US elections nor in elections in European countries (e.g. Germany, France or Italy) or in referendums (Brexit and Catalonia).
  •  Russian authorities, including the FSB and the military intelligence agency GRU, not only had nothing to do with the Novichok nerve gas attack against Skripal and his daughter but also nothing with the polonium assassination attempt on Alexander Litvinenko.
  • Official Russian institutions, including the FSB, never set up elaborate doping schemes, neither for the London 2012 Olympic Games, the 2013 Moscow World Athletics Championship and the Universiade held in Russian Kazan that same year nor for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Contrary claims and alleged evidence, such as the reports commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), are politically motivated and part of an anti-Russian campaign.
  • As for the conflict in Ukraine, this is purely a domestic problem of the neighbouring country. While it is true that there were some military specialists in eastern Ukraine for special tasks, entire Russian military units never intervened in the conflict in Donbas. Russian military personnel captured by the Ukrainian armed forces could perhaps have been tourists or on holiday but not on active duty. Russia never supplied weapons, military equipment or ammunition to the Donetsk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR) People's Republics; never bombarded Ukrainian territory across the border; played no role in the recruitment of mercenaries or in the planning and execution of military operations in eastern Ukraine; does not pay the troops fighting under the flags of the DNR and LNR; grants no subsidies and financial aid to the separatists; and does not kidnap foreign citizens, be they Ukrainian or nationals of other neighbouring countries such as Estonia.
  • The fact that the Russian coast guard, an organizational component of the FSB, surrounded two Ukrainian gunboats and one tugboat in the Kerch strait, shot at them, entered them, forced them into Kerch harbor, arrested their crews, some of whom injured, transported them to Moscow Lefortovo prison with the government threatening to put them on trial was not a military action planned in advance to intimidate Ukraine and demonstrated to the West its powerlessness in the conflict over the Crimea, the Sea of Azov and the Donbas, but an appropriate reaction to a provocation perpetrated by Kiev.
  • There was no breach of contract for the delivery of Siemens gas turbines to the Crimea in circumvention of EU sanctions as these were procured on a secondary market.
  • The Russian Air Force never used cluster bombs in Syria, including the RBK-500 ZAB 2.5SM that was loaded on a Russian Su-34 ground attack aircraft at Khmeimim air base and shown on Russia Today  video when Russian defence minister Shoygu visited the base. It also did not use incendiary and thermobaric bombs  against civilian targets and , neither Russian nor Syrian armed forces targeted hospitals or other medical facilities or used poison gas.
  • It is not Russia that has violated the INF treaty but the US.
  • American-born British financier and economist Bill Browder and his solicitor and tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky committed massive tax fraud, not Russian officials. The latter died in prison but this was not because he was beaten to death by prison guards but because of heart failure, hence the sanctions adopted by US Congress, known as the Magnitsky Act, are nothing but part and parcel of more general US anti-Russian conspiracies.
a russia backed rebel guards his position near the division line with ukrainian army with anti tank missile near dokuchaevsk eastern ukraine friday june 5 2015Russian backed rebel in East Ukraine. Photo wikimedia

To conclude, these and many other cases of denial of state-sponsored assassinations, murder, kidnapping, the use of force across internationally recognised borders, active support of separatist forces in neighbouring countries, disinformation and destabilisation efforts in Western countries, gross violations of international law and massive human rights violations are not figments of Russophobe imagination but incontrovertible fact. Sure, there are people with irrational fear of Russia and things Russian. The author provides some examples of it.