This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Insecurity sits at the heart of what has been termed Russia’s “assault” on Western democracies.
The central element of the rap battle is the diss: a construction of words to insult and dismay your opponent as brutally and yet elaborately as possible. In this subculture, the wordsmith’s world is aggressive, hypersexualized, profane, and everything comes down to who gets ‘owned’ by whom. It is, in other words, a lot like international diplomacy.
So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the Oxford-educated Russian-Jewish rapper, Oxxxymiron, brought the point home in his last punchline against the American Dizaster last month in LA: “Verbal dispute may have the potential to cure this patient, The slowly dying Arab-Jewish, Russian-American relations.” If in hybrid war anything goes, one could do far worse than a good rap diss.
Oxxxymiron, whose real name is Miron Fedorov, already sent ripples through Russia in August with his standoff against rapper Gnoiny. Oxxxymiron managed to cite everything from Yevgeny Zamyatin to George Orwell to opposition leader Alexei Navalny in his attacks on Gnoiny, and the battle was catapulted to the status of a national event. Both Mikhail Khodorkovksy and Alexei Navalny called the profanity-ridden sparring “poetry;” whereas the more conservative side of Russia threatened media publications who covered the “moral squalor” of the rap battle with criminal responsibility and fines.
All this was more than enough to hype up Oxxxymiron’s October 15 battle with the Los Angeles-based American-Lebanese rapper, Dizaster, who is known for aggressively ripping into his opponents in rap battles. But the stakes were far higher in his standoff with Oxxxymiron. For one, this time the battle would be in LA, in English, putting Oxxxymiron on – linguistically speaking – hostile turf. However, their differing standing as rap artists in their respective countries puts Oxxxymiron way above Dizaster.
With this dynamic, things got interesting very fast. While the rappers danced around Russian-American geopolitics, on a miniature scale their very interaction was a reflection of the psychology behind the current relations between Russia and the United States.
The Russian rapper threw everything he had at the American:
“You’re about to see a Russian air strike on Syrian ranks
They inferior to amphibious Siberian tanks
You're nothing but a civilian with silly old blanks
Who's really up his own ass like Azealia Banks
Did I pronounce that right, or is my accent too thick?
I got a license to kill this Arab-American pig.”
Political correctness is not exactly a standard in battle rap, where few things are off-limits. But Oxxxymiron took this to another level with racial slurs that made Dizaster visibly uncomfortable. In doing so he exposed a powerful insecurity that permeates Russian culture, society, and, especially today, its foreign policy.
Understand where Oxxxymiron is coming from: he is one of the top rappers in Russia, sparring off against an American artist who is barely known outside of his subgenre. It’s not as if this was Oxxxymiron battling Eminem.
This imbalance reflects the geopolitical complex that plague many a Russian male: however powerful their country, however profound their history, literature and culture, however educated they are, they feel weaker than any American. This feeling of weakness brings on a need to posture and dominate in whichever way one can – first of all by demonstrating an aggression that serves to exaggerate real capability.
Russia’s government has no ideological alternative to the Western liberalism it derides – so it latches half-heatedly onto disparate homespun and foreign alt-righters. Russia’s military is in no position to offensively engage a NATO country even if it wanted to – so its agencies opt for fly-bys, wargames and provocations. Russia took advantage of a weakened Ukraine to annex Crimea, but was too tentative for an overt mainland engagement and largely resorted to local proxies later backed by covert military aid in Donbas.
In the West we brush away this inherent, objective weakness, blaming corruption, or lack of rule of law, saying it can all be fixed with good leadership, but the disenfranchised Russian male still feels that it cannot – not in his lifetime, nor in his children’s. Russia might be getting up off its knees, but deep down inside, in a place it will never admit exists, it still feels inferior to America.
This inherent insecurity sits at the heart of what has been termed Russia’s “assault” on democratic values and its interference in the American election. A former Kremlin official lamented to me recently that commentators ascribe a great deal of control to the Kremlin where there is none to be had, both domestically and especially in foreign affairs. What in the West has been spun into a formidable threat is actually, on the Russian side, a sense of weakness masked with aggressive posturing.
What message, after all, are the trolls and the agents of disinformation on RT spreading? It’s not a message about Russia’s vision for the world, but rather the message that the world is a dark place, that America is not immune to that darkness, and that Russia, for all its faults, is at least honest about that darkness.
Oxxxymiron, for all his aggressive posturing, came to the rap battle armed with knowledge, and used knowledge, wits, and, yes, a degree of desperation, to honestly beat his opponent. By contrast, RT, the troll factories, and the disinformation campaigns on Facebook have merely turned knowledge against itself. Russian propaganda, in a desperate bid to assert something in the absence of ideology or strategy, took the knowledge of darkness, misfortunate and uncertainty and turned it into a particularly false, nihilistic vision.
With Russia, America has fallen for that posturing which is used by an opponent to obscure his own weakness. Good rappers know and embrace these tactics, and could teach our diplomats a thing or two. Because in the end, in politics as in hip-hop, it’s all just words.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.