Two Minutes to Midnight

Interrogating the new Red Scare

by Sonya Padden 

In August 1988, the first group of commercial rafters to enter Russia since the Iron Curtain dropped in the 1940s, made their way to the Katun River. Nestled in the dense forests carpeting the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, the river was then accessible only by helicopter. The group of 10 Americans met with a group of Russians thanks to project RAFT (Russians and Americans For Teamwork). During a night at camp, after multiple days on the river, one of the Americans asked, “How is it that we have lived under stereotypes and fear for so long?” The light crackle of the fire grew louder as the silence settled. The same skies that 30 years earlier held the threat of falling nuclear weapons were now clear, dark and speckled with stars. Everyone around the fire looked at each other and started crying. The Cold War was over.

Now, almost 30 years later, the discourse in the political arena is adopting a more ominous tone. The annexation (a word which some Russians are reluctant to use) of Crimea, support of separatist movements in Ukraine, allegedly hacked elections and an eerily strong interest in militarization all center around disputing claims of moral high ground. It is easy to see that tensions are escalating, but how serious is it? 

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock,” the time is 11:57:30. The end of the world(something like a full-fledged nuclear war) is at 12:00:00. 

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic measure that estimates the proximity of such a disaster. It is reevaluated every year based on world events and the predicted implications of those events. In 2017, as ISIS continues to invoke global terror, a bloody war in Syria gets more desperate and a new, unpredictable U.S. president takes office, the Bulletin has moved the clock the closest it’s been to “Doomsday” since 1953, after the U.S. tested its first Hydrogen Bomb. 

Since the clock’s inception, the movement of time backward or forward has often been a reflection of relationships between the U.S. and Russia. This type of evaluation indicates that all existential threats to humanity are largely mitigated or created by these two “superpowers.” It insists that the concept of two “superpowers” is still relevant.

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“The Cold War was the normal way of life,” recalls Sergei Denisov, a Russian state military and government official who has worked in the field for 25 years. We corresponded over email in Russian. He remembers being convinced that “American imperialism brings the world evil.” 

“I grew up when the U.S. was viciously trying to destroy Vietnam,” he wrote. “Look at the historical documentaries, how American soldiers burn Vietnamese villages with napalm, how they play football with the chopped off heads of the Vietnamese. What justified U.S. presence in Vietnam?”  

The atrocities of the Vietnam War were also observed domestically in the U.S., and it brewed outrage and confusion regarding the war’s real meaning. Proxy-war mentality—the need to maintain and expand spheres of influence—was not an argument that held up well when body bags were coming home. Yet recently, the sphere-of-influence mentality has been a predominant factor in the contemporary conflict. 

Take the Ukraine conflict. On Feb. 20, 2014, dozens lay dead at Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine. The conflict with protesters who opposed then-president Viktor Yanukovich had escalated. The Ukrainian government claimed the violence was provoked by opposition leaders, while protesters claimed disproportionate and unjustified force by state police. Tensions had been high since Yanukovych had reversed a decision in November to sign a trade agreement with the European Union and instead snuggled up closer to Russia. 

Putin agreed to send in troops to help control the opposition. This opposition, which many Western narratives conveniently do not acknowledge, was likely bolstered by the U.S. On Feb. 22, likely under threat, Yanukovych fled from Kiev to Russia. Three years later, Crimea belongs to Russia once again and the Ukrainian conflict between pro-Eastern rebels and pro-Western forces is still simmering. Domestically, most of the blame for its perpetuation is placed on the Russians. 

David Hendrickson, professor of political science at Colorado College, expressed his disagreement with the“95 percent of American opinion” that says, “No, it was just a pure case of Russian aggression.” Ukraine is a tragic example of how the “superpower mentality” undermines the voice of the people in conflict zones. The debate of whether the U.S. or Russia is “correct” is destructive when the real answer may not be so simple. 

Yet, sanctions remain the U.S.’s primary form of punishing Russian aggression despite being an overly-simple solution to an immensely complicated problem. “These sanctions are not actually hurting the people they are supposed to be hurting,” said Colorado College senior, Hannah Fryer, who attended the 21st annual Bilateral Conference for Russian and American Relations this past July. This was a common thread in many of her conversations with business and government leaders from both nations. The political and economic world landscape has changed. The U.S. is no longer able to eliminate all competition and capture global sales markets. So, as Denisov explains, “The rich guys in the U.S. don’t like this. They attack us with Ukraine.” The sanctions were imposed and defended in a manner that implies U.S. innocence in the matter, as though the U.S. had not made the critical mistake to “encourage a change in government outside of electoral mechanisms,” as Hendrickson put it. 

If managing threats like global terrorism, climate change and nuclear warfare, were at the forefront of U.S. priorities, wouldn’t working with Russia be a logical step? Of course there are reasons to believe that collaboration with Russia is problematic. Rapid increases in militarization in the Arctic, disagreements over policy in the Middle East and the prospects of cyberwarfare are all valid reasons for concern. Yet the U.S., especially some media outlets, insist that Russia is the enemy without allowing for any serious debate. It is accepted as fact, not proposition. The questions aren’t phrased, “Is Russia our enemy?” but rather, “Since Russia is our enemy...”

“Whoever thinks Russia is the enemy, is a victim of the information war,” Denisov wrote. This “war” may seem inconsequential, but information shapes opinion, rhetoric, discourse and eventually action. It may not be “propaganda,” but it’s manipulative powers should not be dismissed. We should indeed be afraid. Not just of Russia and Trump, but of the global climate they engender. This is not the Cold War, but the fights to control perceptions are very much alive. 

Alexei Pavlenko, professor of Russian at Colorado College, remembers travelling to the U.S. during the Cold War.  “When I came to America, I had this idea that people everywhere are about the same,” he said. “I thought that Americans, for example, did not all believe their news and information sources. This is what surprised me, that in reality Americans, almost all just believe what they are told on the TV or what they are told on the radio, that that is indeed how it is.” Once information evolves into belief it becomes gasoline—a fuel so saturated with conviction that a single match could prove disastrous. 

The problem now is similar to the situation after World War II. The danger isn’t so much in the abuse of power by individuals, but in the creation of power ful positions that by design allow, and in many cases invite, abuse. Widespread fear during the Cold War stemmed from the very real possibility of nuclear weapons falling from the sky; however, the graver problem lies in the fact that they were invented in the first place. Dismantling the positions of power and vast arsenals at their disposals is no longer just a “good idea”—it’s essential to humanity’s survival. As Vitya, my neighbor in Russia would say, “Russia needs strong leader, problem is we always get bad one.” He would laugh and flash his gold tooth. I know Vitya will go about his day, managing his ice cream shop in the rural town of Suzdal and probably not give it another thought. But isn’t it a frightening reality if our only protection against abuse is to hope that our dictators are benevolent and “superpowers” agreeable?

We should be concerned. The world is not safe—but has it ever been? The Cold War ironically created a false sense of security. Brinkmanship was not quite a war, so non-occurrence fallacy is accepted. Antagonizing and confronting Russia won’t actually lead to nuclear war, right? Trump won’t actually press the big red button, right?  So today, we fear Russia precisely because we do not actually fear it. The Red Scare has lost its color—Russia, lacking a modern-day ideological or military threat, is antagonized out of convenience, not reality. 

This is why someone like Joe Biden feels comfortable and justified calling Putin a “murderer and a thug.” Such insistence on any particular individual or nation distracts from the problem’s systemic roots. We critique the person who takes advantage of a flawed design, and meanwhile the design gets more flawed. The idea that Russia hacked the U.S elections has, for many, evolved from allegation to fact—a fact to which Denisov replied, “It’s complete bullshit. If our guys could pull off something like that, I could only be proud.” Whether or not these allegations are true is less important than what they represent—a paradigm shift in warfare

The world of cyberwarfare, with drone strikes, intrusive means for surveillance, control and access by independent anonymous actors is ambiguous at best, lethal at worst. Distant, quiet keystrokes could shut down entire power grids, manipulate an election or merely distort public opinion. They escape TV screens, the traces are erased and no body bags are left to mourn. Never before in history has a keyboard carried so much power (and a typo so much potential consequence). When is one keystroke too much? 

Denisov’s closing thoughts, though not necessarily comforting, are not grim either. “As a Marxist would say, practice is the criterion for truth. We’ll live, we’ll see.” There are still 150 seconds until the doomsaday clock strikes midnight.


Part of the Red Issue