First of all, let me start by saying I don't know why the American Establishment is so obsessed about Russia. I can't think of any good reason why it should be. All Russia wants is a quiet life so that it can rebuild things – as Putin himself said, back before he was President:
That was not said by someone whose principal purpose is to re-create the USSR or the Russian Empire; it was said by someone who wants to reconstruct the defective "economic and social situation" of his country. And that requires peace and quiet. In the real world, Russia isn't any kind of threat whatsoever to the USA. And, one would think, when the "Terror threat looms across the world," it's a useful and necessary ally.
I do know, and my quotations collection shows, that hostility to Russia never stopped – or even moderated – after the USSR collapsed. Even in 1990 there were people insisting that nothing was real that was happening because Russia, in its very essence, was expansionist, dictatorial and hostile to "our values." Any so-called changes were only illusions calculated to gull the simple-minded. The only possible Russia was the Enemy Russia: all Russians qua Russians – never mind the absence of the temporary Soviet carapace – imagined, thought about, dreamed of, was enmity to Us and to Our Values. Russophobes – not Russia-fearers really, but Russia-haters – had little audience as long as it seemed that Russia was sinking into insignificance. With the revival of Russia's prospects this century the Russia-haters have come to dominate the discussion.
We hear that Russia is an "existential threat" to the USA. That charge, at least, is true: Russia's nuclear weaponry could obliterate the USA and render it uninhabitable for decades or centuries. (At the same cost to itself, of course). But the UK, France or China could cause unacceptable damage, if not outright obliteration, too. However, Washington doesn't worry about the first two and is not obsessed about the third. And one would think that Russia's nuclear might should have been a reason to treat it with circumspection. Apparently not.
To any objective viewer Russia is not the aggressor. Those who believe that "Putin wants a new Russian empire" should – but never do – explain why he missed the chance to bag Georgia in 2008. Those who believe Russia has invaded Ukraine, never explain why the invader still hasn't managed to get past the Donetsk Airport. A strange reluctance to take the full mouthful: a reluctance that cries out for an explanation. But no explanation is ever presented: in their vision Russia is forever reaching but never grasping, powerful but impotent, determined but indecisive.
It's not Russia that expanded its military alliance up to the "doorstep" of the USA. It's not Russia that has fomented, or tried to foment, "colour revolutions" in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Guatemala or the USA itself. Russian military bases do not surround the USA. Its media is not full of stories about Obama's mistresses, offshore accounts, "information war", "hybrid war", troll factories, thuggish propensities, hatred of homosexuals, determination to conquer neighbours,bare chested macho posing, persecution of rock groups, murder of opponents.
So, why this bizarre fixation with Russia? As I said, I don't know: there remains something deeply irrational about it; something buried deep in the dark that can't quite be seen.
But, forthwith, I put forth a list of possible reasons.
- American lefties dislike Russia because it rejected socialism; indeed the Soviet experience stands as an indictment against the whole scheme.
- Righties dislike Russia because, communist or not (and how many think it still is?) it’s still Russia.
- Americans have to have a rival, an opponent, a counter, an enemy even. It’s geopolitical chiaroscuro: the City on The Hill must shine in the Darkness.
- Russia is the right size of opponent. To be obsessed with Venezuela ("national security threat" though it was declared) would be unworthy of such a "great" and "winning" country. China is too big and, because it owns so much of the US economy, too dangerous, to provoke. Russia is of sufficient size to be a worthy target.
- Russia is a safe target (or so Obama thought a year ago). US-Russia trade is small and there is little cost to being sanctimonious against Russia: bashing Russia gives a pleasing sense of moral superiority without uncomfortable consequences.
- Maybe Russia is an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia, the "end of history" and all that. Russia was, evidently, on the verge of becoming "just like us". But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.
- Russia is a convenient palimpsest on which to write the presumptions you brought. Martin Maliawrote a fascinating book showing how Westerners from Voltaire onwards found Russia to be the perfect exemplar of whatever it was that they wished it to be. So, in Russia you can find whatever you’re looking for: a "geostrategic foe", for example.
- Given that today "human rights" have been reduced to little more than applauding sexual preferences, (watch this Ukrainian video on why the Dutch should have voted Yes, if you think I'm overstating things) Russia is so old-fashioned that all can hate it.
- They're just trapped in it – they've been crying wolf so long and so loudly, they can't stop.
- The people who actually run the USA (the White-House-and-Congress/the-Deep-State: your choice) know that the USA is losing the industrial production capacity that made it Number One. Their solution, so the theory goes (Pepe Escobar's Empire of Chaos theory), is that the only way to keep the USA (relatively) on the top is to depress the others. Chaos and instability on its borders will bog Russia down. Europe can be bogged down by using the Russian threat – in this respect, the sanctions against and by Russia are hurting Europe more than anyone else. In the end, the USA will still be king of the hill even if the hill is smaller.
- For some reason – it's observable, even if it's not explicable – Americans personalise everything. And, out there, visible everywhere, is Vladimir Vladimirovich. On Wednesday the Panama Papersare about him, on Thursday they are by him. Putin Derangement Syndrome sells papers and animates talk shows. Just in the month of April, for example, we have been told that Putin is going out with Murdoch’s ex-wife; we have seen both versions of the Panama Papers story; told that Dutch voters were thought-controlled by him, that he has a secret army in Europe and an army of "spy dolphins". Putin Derangement Syndrome is getting crazier and crazier.
- We cannot forget sheer profitability. Billions spent on an F-35 fighter, a Littoral Combat Ship,unending tank production, trillion-dollar nuclear weapons program and billions and billions more cannot be rationalised by pointing to a handful of "terrorists" equipped with small arms, road-side bombs and suicide vests. Without a serious enemy, justifying big contracts, how can generals hope to get a second high-paid job in retirement? The enormous US military sector needs a capable and convincing enemy. And, other than Russia (or China – remember the pivot to Asia?), what is there?
- There is the argument that NATO is one of the principal ways that Washington maintains its dominance over Europe and the EU. The easiest and simplest justification for NATO is a return to its earliest purpose, as Lord Ismay wittily put it, "To keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down". The director of Stratfor has opined that the "primordial interest" of the USA has been preventing any sort of condominium between Germany and Russia. The Russia-the-eternal-enemy position provides both a justification for the continuation of NATO and a prophylactic against a Berlin-Moscow axis. It ensures a Europe that cannot stand on its own.
- Sheer laziness. The 24/7 news cycle needs material and it's always easiest to stick with what you have. Because Russia filled some time yesterday, it should do so again today. There's always someone available to tell you that Putin is corrupt, or Russia is about to invade some country, or Russia is about to collapse, or Russians are hungry or some other click-bait headline. Better than celebrities and their drug or marital problems because it gives that soupçon of gravity that makes the audience feel it's not wasting its time. The steady diet has its effect and so Russia-the-eternal-enemy comes to be casually accepted.
- It's clear that Putin's team is serious and that many Western leaders are not. Also, and this cannot be denied, the team is successful. This minor country that makes nothing - where no one wants to live and which is dying - is setting the course. Meanwhile, in the West... This must infuriate the Western Establishment and that is a motive for the unceasing attempts to demean Putin & Co. It is "magical thinking": if they repeat the charm loudly and often, maybe Russia will go away and no Western population will have to contemplate the possibility that national governments might actually do what they are paid to do.
- The state of mind in the Obama Administration is not made better by million-view YouTube videos comparing his work-out style with Putin's. Nor pages of sneering cartoons contrasting a macho image with a feeb. Nor pages of "Putin beats Obama". It has been some time since people gushed over Obama's "glistening pecs". It would also go some distance to explain outbursts like "White House criticizes Vladimir Putin’s posture" or flippant – and self-deceiving – dismissals like "regional power acting out of weakness" or "Russia is the outlier".
- A subset of the above is the realisation that the Putin team has out-maneuvered Washington at every step in the past few years. Washington was not able to overthrow Assad in Syria. The US Navy will not have a base in Sevastopol. Ukraine is a failing nightmare and its chances of joining NATO are probably lower than they were ten years ago. The sanctions regime against Russia has backfired. Russia survives low oil prices. The Moscow-Beijing axis is stronger than ever. Russia is not "isolated". The Western Alliance is surely weaker than before. And this returns us to the "magical thinking" that we see manifested in Washington's confused and contradictory utterances.
So abusing Russia satisfies many needs for the American Establishment: a safe opponent to swagger over; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who won’t listen to Daddy; a blank slate on which to write; a pretend enemy we can make a fortune out of; a useful bogeyman to frighten allies into obedience; gossip for pseudo-intellectuals. Many things at once.
But, the cost is rising.
What has changed is the conviction that Russia is a low-cost opponent. It's very interesting to read things like this "If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose — Quickly" and "I am very concerned about the increasing risk of loss of U.S. military technological superiority" from the US defence establishment. Perhaps it's just an attempt to screw more money out of Congress but these are certainly not things that could have been said in 2000.
It's amazing the effect that a few insignificant boats in the Caspian Sea had, isn't it?