The recent war in Georgia announced the return of Russia as a ruthless power to be reckoned with. More disturbing still, it reminded the world of the return of a system that brutally eliminates those who dare to criticize its policies. The murder of anti-government journalist, Magomed Yevloyev, in Ingushetia by police on Sunday is just the latest indication that the Putin regime doesn't flinch to eliminate dissent in all of its forms.
But while Russia is brutally annexing its neighbors and still killing its opponents at home, the international community is now witness to the reemergence of a Cold War relic: the Western apologist for Russian aggression once known as the “useful idiot.”
The term, attributed to Vladimir Lenin, was once applied to those naïve, (and not so naïve) “progressive” Westerners who sought to aid Soviet communism by downplaying – or flat-out denying – the evils it entailed. Prominent in their ranks were such luminaries as playwright George Bernard Shaw, New York Times journalist Walter Duranty and British Labor Party leader Arthur Henderson. Although the Soviet government held these sympathizers in contempt, they parroted its propaganda with the enthusiasm of true believers.
Now they’re back.
The current crop of “useful idiots,” acting as apologists for Vladimir Putin’s recent imperialist aggression in Georgia, is neither so naïve nor so lowly regarded by the Kremlin. But like their pro-Soviet predecessors, they seek to mask the malice behind the Russian government’s actions, particularly in Georgia. Chief among them is former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. While the current German chancellor, conservative Angela Merkl, has placed herself firmly on Georgia’s side in the conflict, the socialist Schroeder is blaming the small Caucasian nation for a war incited by Moscow.
In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Schroeder shamelessly recited Russia’s talking points. Among other implausible assertions, he claimed that it was Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia that “triggered the current armed hostilities” and called Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, “a gambler.” No mention of the passports that Russia had issued to South Ossetians with the deliberate goal of fomenting political trouble for its despised neighbor.
Instead, Schroeder had only kind words for Russia. The Kremlin, he believes, has no interest in military conflicts and poses no renewed threat to her neighbors. Forget Russia’s two wars in Chechnya, its attempted invasion of Georgia, and its cyber warfare attack against Estonian government computers. Never mind Russia’s suspension of energy deliveries to the Ukraine during a political imbroglio – such energy embargoes are Russia’s new form of political ultimatum – and the attempted poisoning of a sitting Ukrainian president, Victor Yuschenko, by the Russian secret police. Instead, Schroeder upbraided Georgia’s Western allies, saying there have been “serious mistakes made by the West in its Russia policy.” As for Russia, peace is its only interest.
In some significant wars, to be sure, Schroder differs from the useful idiots of old. Soviet apologists of an earlier era acted out of naïveté or misguided political idealism. By contrast, Schroeder is a true capitalist: His attempt to minimize Russia’s belligerence is fundamentally about money. The former German chancellor has been on Vladimir Putin’s payroll almost since the day he left office in 2005 (and some believe possibly even before). Barely three weeks after his resignation, Schroeder announced that he was going to work for Russia’s Gazprom, the gigantic, state-owned energy company, whose chairman is a former East German Stasi (secret police) officer. The Stasi officer was friendly with Putin when Putin was a KGB operative stationed in East Germany.
Schroeder’s decision to work for an energy corporation shocked his leftist and liberal supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in his own socialist party. Many believed he was arranging his “personal retirement plan” while still in office, since he had championed in Germany’s parliament the building of a controversial Gazprom pipeline. Due to this cynical opportunism, he has rightly been called Germany’s worst post-war chancellor.
Schroeder is not the only one to receive money for taking pro-Russia positions. According to the Brussels Journal, other influential people abroad, including journalists, who support the Russian government’s line, receive financing from Kremlin coffers. In the Cold War, communist intelligence services called such media supporters in the West “relay stations,” and it is highly likely some may never have left their old employer’s service.
Of course, some European publications took anti-U.S. or anti-Georgia positions simply due to the widespread dislike of America and its allies. Der Spiegel, for example, claimed America was indirectly responsible for the conflict due to its arming and training of Georgian forces and for supporting Georgia’s membership in NATO.
Scotland’s Sunday Herald was more direct. It called Americans hypocrites for complaining about Russia’s invasion of Georgia when America had invaded Iraq, usurping that nation’s sovereignty. (Never mind that Iraq was a rogue-state dictatorship that routinely flouted its international treaty obligations, while Georgia is a democratic country that has sought to expand its ties to the West.) England’s Guardian went even further, calling the Georgian war “a tale of US expansion not Russian aggression.” There was no criticism of either Russia or Putin in either story let alone any sympathy for the 100,000 war refugees.
In the United States, a column in The Nation indulged in a Republican conspiracy theory. It blamed Randy Scheunemann, John McCain’s foreign policy advisor, for the war, since he had once been a paid lobbyist for Georgia in Washington. In another conspiracy fantasy worthy of Soviet-era Pravda, a Russian state radio station told listeners that Dick Cheney was responsible for the war as part of a plot to prevent Barack Obama from being elected American president.
Wherever these anti-American, anti-Georgian views surfaced in the West, there was a sense of gloating that an American ally had been so severely defeated. This twisted view is eerily similar to the Left’s state of mind after the fall of Saigon in 1975. And it would most likely have manifested itself again if America had been defeated and humiliated in Iraq.
Despite superficial differences, the useful idiots of Soviet times and today’s apologists for the Kremlin share a similar characteristic: Neither has learned much from history. They also have learned nothing from brave Russian individuals like Yevloyev and fellow murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. As it sets its sights on re-conquering the free states on its borders, a neo-imperialist Russia doubtless is counting on it.