Every empire needs a scary external threat, led by a singular menacing villain, to justify its massive military expenditures, consolidation of authoritarian powers, and endless wars. For the five decades after the end of World War II, Moscow played this role perfectly. But the fall of Soviet Union meant, at least for a while, that the Kremlin could no longer sustain sufficient fear levels. After some brief, largely unsuccessful auditions for possible replacements — Asian actors like China and a splurging Japan were considered — the post-9/11 era elevated a cast of Muslim understudies to the starring role: Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and “jihadism” generally kept fear alive.
The lack of any 9/11-type catastrophic attack on U.S. (or any Western) soil for the past 17 years, along with the killing of a pitifully aged, ailing bin Laden and the erosion of ISIS, has severely compromised their ongoing viability as major bad guys. So now — just as a film studio revitalizes a once-successful super-villain franchise for a new generation of moviegoers — we’re back to the Russians occupying center stage.
That Barack Obama spent eight years (including up through his final year-end news conference) mocking the notion that Russia posed a serious threat to the U.S. given their size and capabilities, and that he even tried repeatedly to accommodate and partner with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is of no concern: In the internet age, “2016” is regarded as ancient history, drowned out by an endless array of new threats pinned by a united media on the Russkie Plague. Moreover, human nature craves a belief in an existential foreign threat because it confers a sense of purpose and cause, strengthens tribal unity and identity, permits scapegoating, shifts blame for maladies from internal to external causes, and (like religion) offers a simplifying theory for understanding a complex world.