Alexander J. Motyl
Russia’s paranoia has just reached new heights — unsurprisingly, as all dictatorships always see enemies everywhere.
Sergei Naryshkin, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, recently declared that all Russians who studied in the United States are potential enemies whom their supposed puppet masters in the West might use to disrupt Russia’s forthcoming presidential elections in mid-March.
Naryshkin’s worries are, for the most part, absurd.
The United States knows full well that Vladimir Putin’s reelection is a done deal — as is, his predictably phenomenal share of the vote — and that Washington has no way of affecting these outcomes. If Russians decide to protest — a possibility that one shouldn’t ignore or underplay; recall the post-election mass protests of 2010-2011 — they will do so because of their own outrage at the regime’s manipulation of their vote. If the United States really had the ability to produce mass disturbances in Russia, it would have done so many times in the past, and popular protest would be a daily occurrence in Russia. But the United States didn’t, and the protests aren’t.
Which isn’t to say that Naryshkin’s worries are completely misplaced. The CIA just released a short video in Russian encouraging Russian men to resist the corrupt elite and work for systemic change in their country. Will the video be seen? Will it persuade anybody? Who knows. But regardless of the video’s effectiveness, it’s important to keep in mind that its target audience is not students, but young men with families. This minor detail won’t stop Naryshkin from feeding his paranoia, of course, but his growing paranoia will confront him with five big self-created problems.
First, he seems to have overlooked the embarrassing fact that most of Putin’s elite let their kids study abroad, and especially in the United States. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s daughter, for instance, completed a degree at Barnard College in New York. Will she and her dad be targeted by the SVR?
Second, thousands of Russians have studied in American colleges and universities. In the 2020-2021 academic year alone, nearly 5,000 Russians were studying in the United States. Will Naryshkin’s spies be investigating all of them, including the tens of thousands who studied in the United States since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991? Indeed, why stop there? Why not investigate all the Russians who spent time in U.S. higher educational institutions since the late 1950s, when educational exchanges were formalized?
Third, having declared all these thousands as potential spies and provocateurs, Naryshkin will either have to divert his agents from the pursuit of real spies to the pursuit of faux spies or have to lobby for additional resources at a time of declining government revenues and tight budgets. Will Putin give him the money, with the war in Ukraine failing to produce much progress? Will he be happy with the pursuit of kids, as opposed to adult spies?
Fourth, the experience of the Soviet Union in the 1930s suggests that paranoia breeds paranoia. By broadening the pool of potential traitors to include thousands of young people and effectively instituting the equivalent of a Stalinist mini-terror, Naryshkin will inadvertently intensify the fears of all Russians and incentivize them to preserve themselves and their families by denouncing other Russians and avoiding responsibility. Will the SVR, and its sister organization concerned with internal security, the FSB, be able to cope with so many traitors?
And fifth, terror, fear, and denunciations will do nothing to enhance popular morale at a time of war. If the Stalinist terror is any guide to Putinist Russia’s future, one may expect Russians progressively to lose faith in their government and, perhaps, even turn against it and search for alternatives. Can Russia sustain its war effort in such circumstances? Can the Putin regime survive in an environment of growing de-legitimation?
Naryshkin’s move obviously testifies to the fact that Putin’s regime is becoming more repressive, as Putin grows older and his hold on power becomes more tenuous. But it also means that the regime is progressively losing touch with reality and responding to its self-created delusions in the only way it knows how: by withdrawing into itself.
In the final analysis, only a weak regime would look for enemies among kids. Such a regime will not and cannot win the war it started in Ukraine in 2022.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”