Former first minister Alex Salmond's decision to launch a chat show on the state funded Russia Today platform has caused consternation among Scotland's politicians, pundits and journalists. David Jamieson says it has also brought an unwelcome menace to Scotland's door.
At around the same time as the 'Alex Salmond Show' was being subjected to outrage across major UK news titles, Donald Trump was meeting with Vladimir Putin and credulously accepting from the horse's mouth that Russia did not interfere in the US election. Of course this only added fuel to the campaign by the US political and media establishment to implicate Trump in a Russian conspiracy to undermine the country. The campaign is mirrored in similar circles throughout the West, who complain about Russia's apparent omnipotence in modern politics. Scottish independence, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the Front National in France, Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, Freedom Party in Austria, Syriza in Greece and the declaration of a Catalonian Republic have all been blamed on Russian interference.
Concomitant with the Salmond Show controversy, Theresa May joined the conga and heavily implied Russia had a hand in her own disastrous General Election performance. How Russia is able to extend such influence over western politics is never broached. Nor how the second rate power suddenly has this ability after decades of decline. This is because fear of Russian influence originates not from Russian actions, but from the internal turmoil of the west. On the broadly defined left, confusion over the chaotic decline of western nations including the UK, France, Italy, Spain and the US mixes easily with a broader strategic and ideological malaise and cultural assumptions about the moral positions of the world's nations.
Though there are real questions about how those on the left should understand and approach the media and the powerful forces which control it, these are secondary to the wider questions of the nature and dynamic of the world system. It's this bigger picture that is colouring the debate over Russia - rather than threadbare cliches about whether indeed 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. Before dealing with these secondary debates, we must first examine the nature of the world system.
Today's world system is made up of multiple nation states which use diplomatic, economic and sometimes military action to compete with one another. This competition is driven by the imperatives of dominant capitalist interests within states and by the need of states to outdo each other to attract capital and therefore wealth and influence. The pursuit of geo-strategic interests, including but not limited to short and medium run economic interests, is what drives this competition. That is to say, it's not ideological or values based in nature, even when states claim competing world views.
At the end of the second world war, the US emerged as the world's strongest power, and since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 it has been a world hegemony without rival and without comparison in human history. But the US does not exercise complete control. In order to maintain its influence against regional powers it must make alliances with other, smaller, but still powerful states or sponsor proxy or client regimes. The US's most important ally is the UK, which has acted as a military ally, a key node in the US centered global nexus of economic power and a bridge between the US and other important European powers, particularly through the NATO military alliance and the EU.
The scale of western global dominance is astounding. On the military front, the US accounts for almost 40 per cent of the total global military expenditure. Combined with its Nato allies, the western alliance represents well over 50 per cent of arms spending. By comparison, Russia represents just over 5 per cent of military spending. The US economy soars ahead of international competition. The US nominal GDP is 14 times that of Russia. In fact, Russia's GDP is just half that of California.
Stark though they are, these differences underestimate the true gulf in power and influence exerted by the US and its allies on the one hand and the capacity of its competitors on the other. Russia has experienced a torrid few decades with the collapse of its sphere of influence. Following the loss of its Warsaw Pact allies, it endured an unprecedented 40 per cent collapse in GDP. With its global position rocked, Russia faced a struggle for the survival and homogeneity of its state, using violence to crush secessionist movements and struggling to maintain cohesion in the face of epidemics of addiction, disease and organised crime.
Promises made to wind up the cold war NATO alliance and cease the west's hostile stance towards Russia were rapidly abandoned - and the project of containing Russia by spreading US military bases, weapons systems and military and diplomatic alliances continued. Vladimir Putin's triumph has not been to turn Russia back into the major global force it was in the 20th century, but only to stabilise its precipitous decline.
At the same time, the western alliance consolidated its own global position. The EU and NATO expanded towards Russia's borders. The apparent ideological victory of market orientated neo-liberal capitalism re-enforced the dominance of the west's economic model and the coterie of transnational institutions which promote it, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Before the economic crisis of 2008, the west's ability to set the global rules for trade appeared beyond challenge.
In this period, US strategists adopted a new geo-strategic priority: a pivot towards the so called 'Eurasian landmass', the most important and contested quadrant of which is the Middle East and the broader Arab and Muslim world. A succession of wars, the outcome of this pivot, has resulted since 1990 (according recent research by Physicians for Social Responsibility) in the deaths of 4 million people and the maiming, displacement, and immiseration of many millions more. The west's new permanent war front has been an historic catastrophe for the region. Iraq, subjected to constant military bombardment for almost this entire period has finally broken down completely, fracturing into a series of ethnic and confessional fiefdoms.
Only the western alliance, with the UK as second in command, is capable of generating this scale of catastrophe. It alone maintains the ability to project vast military resources half way around the planet, and to engage such a gigantic area and human population in such continuous military operations. Powers like Russia and even China simply lack this capacity. In the real world of geo-strategic rivalry, it's never a question of which state is 'bad' enough to do it, but merely which state is powerful enough to do it.
Of course, Russia does indeed carry out brutal military operations of its own, in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. But these two conflicts mainly serve to underline Russian weakness. Russian geo-strategy is typically reactive to western power and sometimes to popular movements, including where these reactions are bloody and brutal. In Syria, Russia's heavy bombing campaign was launched in order to protect Russia's only real toe-hold in the Middle East. The Syrian revolution had given way, not only to Islamic State as they emerged from the wreckage of Iraq, but also to competition between states which involved both major and regional powers. Russia reacted to events in Syria because it feared a loss of position. It didn't, as the UK and US did in Iraq or Afghanistan, invade and occupy for gain.
Much the same could be said of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. This took place after Russian backed oligarchical factions had lost control of the country to a western backed oligarchical faction. As though to underline the essential dynamic of the world system, Russia's military operations into the country extend from it's own border into Eastern Ukraine. The United State's military operations extend all the way from the Pentagon, across the Atlantic Ocean, across continental Europe and up to the front lines of the dispute. This is by no means a struggle between equals. Once again, the purpose of these examples is not to excuse the Russian state of its brutality. It's to analyse the dynamic of the global system, and to understand which powers pose the greater threat to human life and freedom based on that analysis.
The Russian state uses it media platforms like RT and Sputnik primarily to sew dissension and disharmony among the populous' of its more powerful western allies, and to a lesser extent to provide justification for its own foreign policy. For many who raise alarm about the activities of these platforms, or say that they are beyond the pale for journalists, activists or politicians it's the platforms' interest in destabilising the west that makes them exceptional. Critics also complain that the channels lack editorial independence and that they are therefore mouth pieces for an authoritarian power.
We can deal with these claims in turn and in their proper context. The fact that these platforms seek to heighten tensions within western powers shouldn't worry socialists in the UK. It shouldn't worry democrats of any description since, presumably, the public sphere is enriched by dissenting ideas. Channels like RT very clearly push a news line that elides Russia's abuses and highlights those of the west. They provide news content broadly in line with Russian geo-strategic interests. In fact, it's immediately apparent to the discerning viewer that this is the case.
Western media also does this. This is clearly the case with newspapers, typically owned by the very rich, which are not expected (at least in the UK) to be impartial. But it's also the case with public broadcasters like the BBC. The BBC is one of the most high quality and respected broadcasters in the world. That its news values are higher than, for instance, RT, is not in question. The BBC has vastly superior resources, apart from anything else. But the BBC also projects the UK's own geo-strategic interests, and its reports and programmes are highly critical of rival sub powers.
The state does not exercise direct control over the broadcaster (in normal times). It doesn't have to. The BBC's leading staff agree, ideologically, as do many of the high profile critics of Russian media platforms, that Britain operates a more moral system at home and abroad than foreign countries including Russia. The BBC is a more effective propaganda tool because it's able to criticise the British Government, and give coverage to a more plural domestic political system. But its coverage is still influenced by the elite educational and class backgrounds and media training - mainly in the rightwing press - of its leading journalists and administrators. The criticisms it offers all reside within a narrow paradigm that accepts the social order and its major institutions and architecture. The British state is powerful enough, and its civic sphere developed enough that it can easily afford internal criticism of a type and up to a point.
However, the BBC's coverage of foreign events, especially conflicts, is little different from the types of reports on channels like RT. This is the field of some of the BBC's most infamous examples of bad practice. It refused to broadcast the DEC Gaza emergency appeal from a host of charities during operation cast lead in 2009, when it's skewed coverage led to huge protests at BBC HQ in London. In 2004, in the wake of the Hutton Enquiry into the death of Iraq weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, the National Union of Journalists raised concerns that the BBC was under pressure for being overly critical of the UK Government in the run-up to the war. Indeed, in times of war or when state interests have become otherwise acute, the state typically steps in to steer the ostensibly public broadcaster.
But really, the BBC's function as a purveyor of official information and views is not confined to a few infamous examples. This is routine. This report on growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran was published at the height of the row over the Alex Salmond show. The report makes clear that Britain's ally, Saudi Arabia, has been provoked into its confrontation with Iran. It makes the casual claim that the rivalry between the two states is about religion. And it complains that Iran is spreading its influence through armed groups and other movements across the region, whilst down-playing Saudi Arabia's aggression in the region and not even mentioning its sponsorship of Islamic State.
The operating assumption at the BBC is that the UK and its allies are on the good team in the global competition. It's expected that domestic disagreements will give way to unity against foreign powers. This is true of every country in the world.
So try to imagine a 30cm ruler. 30cm represents a truly democratic society, where people are in direct and full control over every aspect of state and economy. North Korea is at 0cm. Western allies like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf dictatorships are at 1cm. Countries like Russia and Nato member Turkey are around 2cm. Western powers like the UK may hover around 3cm. What's in a centimetre? Not nothing - the democratic rights that generations of working people have fought for are absolutely vital for the rights we posses now and for gaining more freedom in the future. Socialists are for the expansion of democracy everywhere - including in the authoritarian Russian state, which imprisons and sometimes kills journalists and dissidents.
But the western alliance is the world's most prolific exporter of anti-democratic regimes. It remains unclear how appearing in or working for the west's media, which is largely supportive of this anti-democratic foreign policy, trumps appearing on RT or any other outlet supportive of a rival foreign policy. Lastly, it would be remiss not to point out that large numbers of centrist and liberal British Russiaphobes are inordinately supportive of the EU, a deeply undemocratic organisation which not only lacks real internal democracy but also directly infringes on the democracy of member states, as in Greece where it imposes highly destructive austerity policies.
There are basically two views of the threat to democratic rights in the west. There's the establishment perspective that holds that polarisation itself, and the growing disagreement over basic values and ideas in economics, morality and identity is dangerous. For the establishment and its ideologues, democracy comes from the social order and the hierarchy at its top. It's threatened by ordinary people with a sense of ideological independence from the order.
For socialists, democracy comes from the social movements of ordinary people, from ideological disputation and, consequently, from the disorder afflicting elite rule. The shadow of Russia (and other foreign powers, like China and Iran) will stretch longer across UK politics in years and decades to come. The decline of western power, and of the UK in particular, combined with the growth of political polarisation and shocks to the established order will lead the centre to look for foreign enemies to blame. This danger is more acute even than in the US - the home of the latest anti-Russian scare campaign - because the crisis in the UK is marked by the threat of national disintegration and a rising radical left.
If the establishment succeeds in making Russia, or some other foreign threat, a unifying enemy crossing party and ideological lines, this enemy will be used against social movements, against the left and against political and media freedoms in general. The left has to resist a trend of thought that says 'whatever our disagreements about domestic politics, we are united in opposition to worse regimes'. Even under circumstances where the UK were not the key ally of the hegemonic global power, it would still be necessary for socialists to focus our attentions on our own government. Under the actual circumstances, doubly so.