Traditional Russophobia in an Unusual Election Year

Why would Russia pay Taliban troops to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan? “Russia has never gotten over the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan,” Nancy Pelosi explains helpfully, “and now they are taking it out on us, our troops.”

The speaker of the House has perhaps forgotten that after 9/11 Vladimir Putin supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, even allowing NATO to transport equipment to Afghanistan through Russia. Moscow has maintained cordial relations with the Afghan government sponsored by the U.S. It does not want a radical Islamist regime in Kabul; Pelosi indeed refers to the fact that the Soviet Army fought Islamist mujahadeen all through the 1980s to prevent the rise of a Taliban-type regime.

But Pelosi is basically saying Russians are bad people, the enemy that hates us. This is virtually an article of faith in the Democratic Party, on full display at the impeachment hearings that were designed to show how soft Trump is on Russia.

As the party is pulled slightly left by the Black Lives Matter-led uprising, and by pressure from former Bernie supporters, it is pulled right by the Obama administration veterans like Susan Burns and Samantha Vinograd who get paid to appear on TV insisting on more confrontation with Russia and China. For them, Trump’s chief sins are his abrogation of the obligations of power, his deference to dictators, his reduction of U.S. forces in Syria, his withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whereas Obama’s first term had been marked by the bombing of Libya at Hillary Clinton’s direction (the total destruction of that modern state, once the most affluent in North Africa) and covert operations in Syria, Trump’s first term is passing with no new war. This is a shocking break from tradition. Biden if elected will take a tougher line, maybe establishing that no-fly zone over Syria that Hillary wanted, thereby provoking war.

Meantime the story about Russian intelligence officers offering Afghans payment to kill Coalition soldiers, obtained from unnamed European intelligence sources, is being used to embarrass Trump. Since his May 4 briefing indicated that an April 19 car bombing in Afghanistan might have been conducted by people paid by Russia, and he took no action, he can be ridiculed as shockingly inattentive or actively complicit in a Russian plot. And Putin looks worse than ever. The U.S. press has made up its mind that Russia is paying Taliban to kill Americans.

Again, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like accusing Saddam Hussein of involvement with 9/11, or reporting that Iraq had nuclear weapons. But some of us recall how the masses of people actually believed that bullshit. It’s amazing how much stupidity a society can swallow for some time.

The U.S. is now at under 8600 troops in Afghanistan and planning withdrawal of 4000 more by the end of the year. The war is winding down. The U.S. has lost, like the Russians in the 1980s, the British in the nineteenth century, Alexander’s Greeks in the fourth century BCE. The war and occupation were based on the flawed premises that (1) the Taliban (a xenophobic nationalist Pashtun-led movement) was the same as al-Qaeda (an international terror organization), shared responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and had to be toppled by force, and that (2) the U.S. could remake Afghanistan as a capitalist multi-party democracy steered by international capital, in which basic reforms like the education of girls could occur smoothly. All the U.S. has to show for its 19 years of occupation of Afghanistan is division and ruin. It must leave and Trump for whatever reasons gets that.

Now why, you might ask, would Russia, observing the U.S.A. in retreat, in its state of abject defeat, want to play a role in its humiliation by subsidizing attacks on withdrawing troops? Cui bono? Is Moscow, anticipating a Taliban return to power, trying to court its former foes? It doesn’t make sense. But it does make sense for the Democrats to sustain their assault on Trump based upon traditional Cold War anticommunism rehashed as Russophobia.

Russia did not elect to make itself the adversary of the U.S. following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. On the contrary; Russian president Boris Yeltsin (a key figure in the destruction of the USSR) invited in U.S. advisors to help destroy the state enterprises of the Soviet period and privatize them in the hands of today’s capitalistic oligarchs who are Putin’s power base. The doddering buffoon was the darling of the west; the IMF assisted in his reelection in 1996 (a classic example of U.S. foreign election interference). But the Russians became upset when Bill Clinton used NATO to destroy and reconfigure Yugoslavia, a traditional Russian ally, producing nothing but more Balkan misery, corruption, and of course U.S. military bases and NATO member countries.

The Russians did not start this. The U.S. has made itself Russia’s adversary, by its incessant expansion of the anti-Russian military alliance called NATO that has swelled from 16 countries in 1991 to 30 today, virtually surrounding European Russia. That is the main problem. Alas it is obfuscated by the cable news anchors and talking heads who cannot ever problematize its existence but must treat it as the rock of postwar stability and democracy in Europe, beyond reproof. That its expansion in violation of George W. H. Bush’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” east after the inclusion of East Germany in 1991 has antagonized Russia—for good reasons obvious to thinking people—does not concern these people. The most recent addition to the anti-Russian military alliance, whose members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDPs on military expenses (preferably buying U.S. weapons), was North Macedonia. The only notice this occasioned in the U.S. press that I saw was Sen. Rand Paul’s objection.

The plan is for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO too!

Each time Russia pushes back (in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014) the U.S. imperialist media portrays Russia as the aggressor, Putin a new Hitler, as Hillary said. A media that can’t get it’s head around the fact that U.S. aggression has slaughtered maybe a million civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya dwells on RUSSIAN aggression! Because Moscow doesn’t want Islamists taking power in Syria and blowing up all the churches, and doesn’t want a NATO base in Sevasapol!

Moscow has denied the bounty story. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov calls it “bullshit.” The Taliban has denied it. The White House has denied receiving a credible report. But MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are sure it’s true, and that it’s just another indication that (as Pelosi puts it) “all things lead back to Putin.” So we can expect that Trump will either validate the report and impose new sanctions on Russia, or do nothing such that his active collusion in Russia murder of Americans will become a campaign issue.

While the consciousness of the masses, about the institutional nature of racism, is rising, the two political parties compete in reviving the idiotic Cold War mentality of the 1950s. Just as there is no anti-capitalist party, there is no anti-imperialist party. And sadly, some of the most woodenly anti-Russian are progressive black politicians (like Maxine Waters). The Democrats can go a long way towards coopting anti-racist movements; they’re good at it. They can accept “democratic socialists” like Bernie and AOC. But they cannot oppose U.S. imperialism, or even call it for what it is as they tell every soldier they encounter, “Thank you for your service.” They cannot ever imagine a world without NATO.

The thinly resourced New York Times story seems timed to remind potential voters that Trump is a Putin stooge. He is, that is to say, not only a racist who retweets a video of supporters shouting “White Power!” but a traitorous Russian ally complicit in the death of U.S. troops. But the movement in the streets should realize that the U.S. racism manifest in our cities is also evident in foreign wars fought to insure white Wall Street’s hegemony over whole swathes of the planet. Russia is another mostly white country, and its not targeted in specifically racial terms; on the other hand, the Russians are essentialized as obedient automatons who hate America and want world domination.

A President Biden paying lip service to BLM and deferential to his party’s progressive wing could still be the president who launches World War III. As it is his campaign is fully aboard the China-bashing program (blaming China for the virus and joint Xi-Trump coverup). He’s tough on Russia, and has had a particular interest in Ukraine acquired following the February 2014 putsch (after which his son was famously hired by the Burisma gas company). I suspect he will push for rapid inclusion of Ukraine into NATO, which would be the next natural step for the organization. The Russians have made it clear this is a red line, but Biden may be too myopic to see it.

So buoyed as my spirits are by the most inspiring mass movement since the 60s, this media promotion of Russophobia depresses me. Listening to an idiot expert on MSNBC now explaining how Russia has “supported Assad in Syria, challenging our interests” like it’s (1) absolutely natural for the United States to want to dominate the world, making war to create client states in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and (2) wrong for Russia to support traditional allies to prevent them from becoming terrorist states and/or U.S. puppets. This is the default national consciousness: American Exceptionalism. It is domestic racism on steroids. The macro-racism that denies breath to whole countries.

Rep. Adam Schiff now on CNN excluding Russia from “civilized nations.” Of Trump he says, “Many of us to not understand his affinity with that leader who means America ill.” (Schiff’s concept of the civilized nation is Israel. I don’t understand his affinity with a country that is so racist and aggressive but it is part and parcel of his loyalty to the U.S. Empire.) As Ray McGovern, 27-year CIA analyst who used to give presidents their morning intel briefings, explains on, this is “the last gasp of Russiagate.” Another attempt to damage Trump, not because of his genuine offenses and crimes, but his failure to be adequately, patriotically anti-Russian.

Another reason to say to the election: A plague on both your houses.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: