The Unpopular Prospect of World War III
Is the 20th century really over? In Russia, a virulent form of anti-Americanism is becoming a constituent part of public opinion and foreign policy thinking. Should the currently dominant trend in Russian political discourse continue, in the future, the world will witness not only a new Cold War, but be again on the brink of an armed confrontation between two nuclear superpowers. By Andreas Umland
A regularly employed analyst runs a certain risk when publicly speaking about the possibility of a destruction of humanity in the foreseeable future. “Professional myopia” or “immaturity in judgment” may be among the less denigrating – “unprofessional hysteria” or “irresponsible conduct” the more damning – reactions by colleagues. A co-worker recently advised me to delete from an article the term “World War III.” I decided not to do so.
This is because the darkness of a future scenario that one comes to regard as possible should be no hindrance for its full assessment and public outline. Arguably, one of the reasons societies afford the employment of social scientists at universities and research institutes is the provision of information and interpretation that goes beyond what journalists, publicists or politicians – often, more dependent on current mainstream opinion and reigning political correctness than academics – may be able to say or write.
A plain extrapolation of recent political developments in Russia into the future should lead one to regard outright war with NATO as a still improbable, yet again possible scenario. It is not unlikely that Russian public discourse will, during the coming years, continue to move in the same direction and with the same speed with which it has been evolving since 2000. What is, in this case, in store for the world is not only a new “cold” but also the possibility of a “hot” and perhaps even nuclear war.
The Anachronism of World War III
This assessment sounds not only apocalyptic but also “unmodern,” if not anachronistic. Aren’t the real challenges of the 21st century global warming, financial regulation, the North-South divide, international migration etc.? Isn’t that enough to worry about, and should we distract ourselves from solving these real problems? Hasn’t the age of the East-West confrontation been over for several years now? Do we really want to go back to the nightmarish visions of the horrible 20th century? A sober look on Russia advises that we better do: carefulness may decrease the probability that a worst-case scenario ever materializes.
Such a scenario has become feasible again as Russian public opinion and elite discourse have been subject to – until August 2008, largely unnoticed in the West – a fundamental shift, in recent years. The 1990s began with Russia’s enthusiastic embrace of the Western value system and partnership; they ended with Russian skepticism and bitterness towards the West. This was less the result of NATO’s expansion or bombing of Yugoslavia per se than an outcome of Moscow’s peculiar interpretation of these actions.
Repercussions of Russia’s Unfinished Revolution
In the early 1990s, Yeltsin had failed to remove many of the Soviet Union’s elites from their positions of power and influence. This gave the ancien régime’s representatives an opportunity to impregnate post-Soviet political discourse with a reformulated, yet again fundamentally dualistic world-view in which Russia and the United States remain archenemies fighting not only for control of the former Russian empire, but also deciding the future fate of humanity.
Initially marginal interpretations such as these were making inroads into Russian mainstream discourse in the 1990s already. With the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s rise in 1999, however, they started to move slowly but steadily into the political center.
So, even before the Russian-Georgian war, the Russians’ views of the United States were deteriorating continuously. Whereas in a poll conducted by Russia’s leading sociological survey agency, the Levada Center, in July 2000, 69 percent of the respondents said that they had a “very good” or “mainly good” opinion of the United States, by July 2008 this number shrank to 43 percent. In the same period, the number of those with a negative or very negative view of the United States rose from 23 percent to 46 percent.
Asked by the Levada Center what they saw as the major reason for the Russian-Georgian conflict, 48 percent of the respondents in mid-August 2008 chose the answer “The U.S. leadership wants to extend its influence on Russia’s neighbouring states.” To the question why leading politicians of the West support Georgia, 66 percent replied that it is because “Western politicians want to weaken Russia and push her out of the Caucasus.”
In another poll in September 2008, 52 percent of the Russian respondents who knew the term “Cold War” agreed that it was continuing while only 18 percent of them chose the answer “the Cold War is over.”
What has been even more worrying is the growth of anti-Americanism in Russia’s elite strata and intellectual discourse. Whereas Europe’s recent skepticism towards the US has been, in many cases, an anti-Bushism, the Russian aversion towards America and NATO goes deeper. Today, the idea that the Western (or, at least, Anglo-Saxon) political leaders are virulently russophobic is commonplace in both TV talks show and academic conferences.
That events like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Georgian attack on South Ossetia were fundamentally inspired, if not directly organized by the CIA is, in Russia today, a truism. That the CIA or another Western secret service is behind 9/11 or the Beslan tragedy are respected assessments frequently discussed in mainstream Moscow mass media. That the current behaviour of the West and its puppets in Eastern Europe has much in common with Nazi Germany’s policies is an opinion with which, today, many Russians would readily agree.
Such collective paranoia is not only regrettable, but also dangerous. The nation that is subject to these bizarre views still has a weapons arsenal large enough to erase humanity, several times. Until August 2008, it seemed that Dmitry Medvedev’s rise may usher in a new stage in Russian-Western relations – a chance that, after the Russian-Georgian war and the disciplining effect it had on the new President, has become slim again.
Today, there is little ground for hope that the deep contamination of Russian public discourse could be reversed, or, at least, its further evolution be stopped in the near future. The example of the Weimar Republic illustrates that a conspirative view of the world amongst the majority of a country’s population might even prepare the ground for the rise of fascism.
Western Failures after 1991
Moreover, in Russia, the West’s reputation has suffered not only, like in much of the world, from the various international escapades of the Bush administration and Blair cabinet. Reminiscent of the Entente’s misguided behaviour towards Germany after World War I, the West has – through its usual arrogance as well as simple inattention – regularly ignored legitimate Russian interests in the former Soviet Union.
In Georgia and Ukraine, the West left and is leaving largely uncommented frequently undemocratic policies of nationalizing regimes that were and are infringing the interests and feelings of national minorities, not the least of ethnic Russians. Scandalously, the EU has accepted as members the Baltic ethnocracies that have, to one degree or another, made their Russian-speaking populations hostages to former Soviet policies: the governments of Latvia and Estonia deny their large russophone minorities elementary political rights on the basis of dubious ethnocentric arguments long discredited in Western Europe.
As there is little prospect that the West will develop the strength or even willingness to correct these and similar inconsistencies in its international behaviour, Moscow’s falcons will find it easy to further demonize the Western elites. The latter, in turn, will face an acrimonious choice to make when it comes to act on their promise, to Georgia and Ukraine, that these countries shall become members of NATO – an organization seen as fundamentally anti-Russian by both Moscow’s intellectuals and the Russian common man. Unless something fundamentally changes in Russian-Western relations, we will – as the Russian-Georgian war illustrated – continue to live on the brink of an armed confrontation between two nuclear superpowers.
Dr Andreas Umland (The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Bavaria) is editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and co-editor of the Russian web-journal “Forum for the Contemporary History and Culture of Eastern Europe“. He also administers the website “Russian Nationalism” which provides extensive up-to-date information on recent trends in Russian right-wing thought and politics.
An edited version of this text was first published in “The National Interest Online” at on 16th January 2009.
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