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Remembering John McCain, Moscow's Enemy No. 1

Tributes are pouring in for Senator John McCain, but the remembrances in Russia have been less than charitab...

Posted: Aug 28, 2018 8:53 PM
Updated: Aug 28, 2018 8:53 PM

Tributes are pouring in for Senator John McCain, but the remembrances in Russia have been less than charitable.

"As a good Christian, I wish peace and rest to all the irreconcilable enemies of my Motherland," said Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russian television network RT, on Twitter. "Of course, in the next world."

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Andrei Medvedev, a Russian journalist, shared a similar view.

"John McCain was a real enemy of my country," he wrote on Facebook. "A straight, sincere, Russophobe to the bottom of his heart."

In Russia, Medvedev argued, McCain "saw a threat to America, his country, and therefore wanted with all his might for Russia to disappear as quickly as possible. And he himself tried -- and urged others to help him -- so we would no longer be on the map of the world."

Pro-Kremlin politicians and Russian state television also piled on, vilifying the man and his political legacy, particularly when it came to Russia.

State-run channel Rossiya-1 called McCain, "the main symbol of Russophobia" on the Sunday night broadcast of the news program Vesti. No mention was made of McCain's principled stand against torture, his willingness to hold the US defense industry to account or his o

ther legislative accomplishments. But Vesti did note that it was a Soviet-made missile that knocked McCain's A-4 Skyhawk out of the sky over North Vietnam in 1967, resulting in the future senator's lengthy stay at the Hanoi Hilton prison.

'Hatred of Russia'

In death, McCain was cast as an adversary, albeit grudgingly acknowledged as a strong one.

"Honest in his hatred of Russia," said Oleg Morozov, a senator, the news agency RIA-Novosti reported. "A highly ideologically driven politician," said Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian senate.

It seems easy to guess why some Russians did little to disguise their glee over McCain's death. After all, this was the man who slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2017 Senate speech as a "killer," and "that butcher and thug and KGB colonel."

But antipathy toward McCain ran deeper. In Russian state media and in official pronouncements, McCain was usually portrayed as the ultimate Cold Warrior, the personification of an anti-Russian national-security establishment in Washington bent on encircling and undermining Russia.

Hence the obsession in Russia with McCain's support for regime change in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Alexey Pushkov, another prominent Russian senator, recalled engaging in a debate with McCain on the Syria crisis at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"He was preoccupied only with regime change in Syria," Pushkov said on Twitter. "At what cost, and what forces would come to power in Damascus after that did not concern him."

McCain didn't live to see the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Pushkov added.

"Politics and fate decided otherwise," Pushkov said. "McCain's plans to restructure the world under the total hegemony of the United States will not come true."

That point -- that McCain sought to impose some sort of Pax Americana on the rest of the world -- is the thread that unifies much official Russian commentary about McCain. And it speaks volumes about how the Kremlin views Washington, even in the era of President Donald Trump.

Interestingly, the Vesti obituary focused in part on McCain's tenure as chairman of the International Republican Institute, a democracy-promoting organization that is funded by grants from the US State Department, US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and a number of European foundations and aid agencies.

The organization's work on election monitoring and democracy promotion may seem innocuous, but the work of IRI and similar nongovernmental organizations is often depicted in Russia as something sinister. In the official view, these NGOs are little more than a thinly disguised cover for US-led efforts to interfere in the politics of other countries, including Russia.

Perhaps more than anything, it was McCain's support for pro-democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that provoked the Kremlin's ire. Russian media suggested that the senator was ultimately directing his efforts at a larger target: Russia.

Mourned in other post-Soviet countries

Sunday's Vesti broadcast showed a clip of an interview with the senator by a Russian television crew in which he warned that there would be consequences for Moscow if it interfered in Ukraine's internal affairs following the Maidan protests there.

No surprise, then, that some of the biggest outpourings of support came from those post-Soviet countries.

"Sad news for all Ukrainian people," said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The "world is worse place without him," tweeted former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In life, and in death, McCain touched a nerve in the post-Soviet space. One has a hard time imagining who will take his place in the Kremlin's imagination as the Russophobe-in-chief.

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