As the Covid-19 pandemic continues in earnest, governments resort to playground tactics, blaming others while trumping-up their own success and minimizing internal setbacks.
Russia is doing just that, and no doubt seeks to point to other government’s similar malfeasance as justification. Accordingly, President Vladimir Putin points his finger at the United States as the source of the novel coronavirus. It’s an approach to “Hack & Hype” that’s really just hype at this stage.
The Kremlin’s particular brand of malfeasance manifests as overt authoritarian control of internal news media and independent citizen bloggers. While some may lump President Trump in the same basket of deplorable government leaders as Putin and President Xi Jinping, it’s important to recall that while Trump despises the American press, he does not control it. Nor can he.
Putin’s government has imposed a sweeping anti-misinformation law that broadly authorizes a misinformation police force to investigate and charge citizens accused of spreading fake news. When we see reports of a woman charged for posting a Covid-19 death in a region where officials report no cases, it becomes clear that “investigation” is a term of art that is heavily misused in this case. 
The accused are fined or jailed after signing a forced confession, a video of which is then posted to the Interior Ministry’s YouTube channel. New criminal cases appear every couple days, and there have been over 200 indictments in Russia to date for spreading Covid-19 misinformation. “I admit my guilt; I repent,” says one unidentified citizen in a forced confession. Most of these cases are ordinary citizens, but journalists are increasingly swept up in the maelstrom. Legitimate news sites and medical journals are ordered by the Russian misinformation police to remove harmful content, or else.
Meanwhile, outlets sympathetic to Putin are allowed to publish their own stories. Nikita Mikhalkov, a Russian filmmaker, is seen on government mouthpiece television presenting bizarre conspiracy theories connecting Bill Gates to the Covid-19 pandemic. How DARE wealthy philanthropists seek to assist? Russian speakers are encouraged to visit trite.ru to get a sense of Mikhalkov’s talents. The Russian misinformation law is manifestly selective and favors news that presents the government in a favorable light, such as statistics that tout the Russian Covid-19 fatality rate as 7x lower than the global average. The devil is in the details, as authorities don’t tally Covid-19 deaths if there were comorbidities present, yet year-over-year mortality statistics across Russia are far higher through the pandemic.
The pandemic and its effects on populations can only magnify the internal problems of governments the world-over. Putin, an authoritarian leader, needs the trust of the populace to maintain order and credibility. That much is understood, even if it is immoral or unethical as that trust is gained by force, but Putin takes it all a step further as he irresponsibly implicates the US in spreading the disease.
Why is the Russian Federation so belligerent? Listen-in on any discussion about Russian foreign policy, and you’ll probably hear how Russia plays a weak hand very, very well. From Soviet doping scandals through contemporary information warfare, it’s as though Moscow is forever punching above its weight class, in sport and international politics alike. Perhaps sport, fake news, and politics are one in the same for Russia, representing a “whole of government” approach so fetishized as the zenith of grand strategy, and most readily achieved in authoritarian systems.
National weakness is not in itself a determining factor for belligerence; after all, when was the last time Costa Rica raised a stink? There’s an inescapable pathology at play, and part of it has to do with the vulnerability of Russian geography. It’s this vulnerability, and a resultant paranoia, that drive Moscow’s poor behavior and national mobilization as they strive to keep pace with their rivals.
Navigate to Google Maps, select the “Satellite” view, and plot directions from St. Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don. The line emulating a flight path is our interest. Zoom in just enough to observe how closely Moscow, the Russian capital and home to the Kremlin, sits to that line. This imaginary line is very significant in Eurasian history.
Dating back to the earliest periods of Russian history, before the Russians were Russians, this imaginary line connecting modern St. Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don has been crossed and violated countless times. The Hellenes brought traders and explorers; the Romans brought outposts. Then came the Huns. The Mongol conquerors brought enlightened governance in the thirteenth century, introducing unprecedented religious and racial tolerance, the idea of rule by consensus, a culture of meritocracy, the rule of law, the sponsorship of Eurasian trade, support for universal literacy, the first international postal system, and the first widespread use of paper money.
It is a testament to the rule of Genghis Khan that in Russia, some of these things endure to this day.
On through the period encompassing the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Tsardom and Imperial Russia, borders fluctuate east and west of this imaginary line quite frequently. Portions of Russia’s easternmost expanse have always been contested, continuing to this day, but these disputes and fluctuating demarcations pale in comparison to those of Russia’s western frontier. In 1914, Russian holdings included present-day Belarus and vast portions of Poland. Despite the distance this massive land buffer created between Moscow and her Triple Alliance rivals (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy), Nicholas II still saw a need to form the Triple Entente with France and the United Kingdom.
Was Nicholas II paranoid? Yes, and with good reason, if one acknowledges the speed and relative ease with which Napoleon entered Moscow (1812) and Hitler came within sight of Moscow and Leningrad (1941). Nazi-occupied territory during Operation Barbarossa draws a front-line trace that’s pervasive enough to give any Russian commander goosebumps. This German advance crept well-beyond the imaginary line we previously plotted, representing a territorial violation that nearly enveloped the seat of Russian power.
As Soviet territorial holdings and satellite states dwarfed even those of 1914, Nicholas II bequeathed his paranoia to Cold War comrades. The Triple Alliance was replaced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The USSR seized Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, and formed the Warsaw Pact that included Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and East Germany. This stretched the Kremlin’s protective buffer hundreds of miles westward across Europe, and Soviet leaders still feared a NATO land invasion.
It’s clear that no protective distance yet achieved by Moscow has quelled that sense of territorial vulnerability. Russia, while large and unforgiving to invading forces, remains paranoid. It’s a result of many colluding factors.
It’s long been noted that countries engaged in global commerce are wealthier, and nothing contributes to a country’s ability to trade more than access to the open seas. It’s why the US, endowed as it is with two oceans, has risen through history to establish the liberal international order. Robust American trade contributes to its influential status among nations, and Washington preserves that condition through the world’s strongest navy, designed specifically to keep maritime trade routes safe for commerce. Hamilton couldn’t be prouder.
If you review our impromptu map with the imaginary line, you’ll see that Russia is mostly landlocked. There are depressingly few points from which Russia can access the high seas: Murmansk, St. Petersburg and Sevastopol. Each of those routes can be blocked by a NATO member state. Russia’s eastern frontier fares no better in the face of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Royal Australian Navy, to say nothing of the United States Pacific Fleet. Russia’s geography makes for poor maritime commerce and naval defense.
A landlocked Russia makes-do as a land power. Looking at our improvised map, we find that Moscow sits on the European plain, utterly bereft of natural terrain to slow an enemy advance (recall again Napoleon and Hitler). The permissive terrain also meant that the Soviets could theoretically blitz all of NATO in seven days, a concept succinctly captured in the highly descriptive name for their “Seven Days to the Rhine” invasion plan. Not to worry – NATO had a plan to quash such an operation; it was their mandate, after all.
Russia is hopelessly landlocked and vulnerable to invasion across permissive terrain. Key to the Russian pathology of perpetual paranoia is not simply a lack of abundant maritime access or mountain and swamp barriers; almost all of Russia lives in close proximity to our imaginary line. Moscow is a day’s march from that line. The greatest population densities live along that line; all of Russian agriculture is produced along that line; and the highest concentration of Russian railroads and other lines of communication sit along that line. Such a terribly vulnerable line. It’s no wonder Russia always plays the hungry bear.
And a hungry bear is Russia indeed, forced not only to compete with the US – the globe’s maritime and economic hegemon – but also to prepare for existential war with the US. The Soviet Union was always destined to lose the Cold War owing to Russia’s inherently weak hand. Soviet leader after Soviet leader exhausted very limited resources to make the USSR a formidable foe against far more well-resourced and integrated NATO allies. Worse, a Russian proclivity for authoritarian rule allowed the likes of Stalin to take power. Stalin was not immune to the Russian pathology. So paranoid was he that for most of the 1930s, he purged his Army and party members of over a million distrusted people.
Over a million dead – that’s some paranoia.
We don’t wish Putin any luck as he seeks to revive his notion of Soviet glory. But we can all appreciate how he plays a weak hand very well, albeit belligerently.
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