SHORTLY before the presidential election, at a discussion about Russian-American relations I attended in Cambridge, Mass., speakers from both countries voiced the hope that the election of Barack Obama would signal the renewal of a beautiful friendship. These hopes were chilled the day after Mr. Obama won. In an address to the Russian Parliament, President Dmitri Medvedev welcomed President-elect Obama with a threat to deploy Russian missiles on the Polish border if the United States put anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe. While some conciliatory signals followed, it seems clear that the Kremlin intends to keep the “new cold war” going.
Just three days before Mr. Medvedev’s speech, the state-subsidized youth movement Nashi staged a Halloween-themed rally in front of the American Embassy in Moscow. Nearly 20,000 young people held pumpkins marked with the names of “America’s victims,” among them the casualties in South Ossetia. In an amateur film shown at the rally, an actor portraying a drunken George W. Bush bragged that the United States had engineered both world wars and the rise of Hitler to expand its power.
Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Russian journalist, has said that “the existential void of our politics has been filled entirely by anti-Americanism,” and that to renounce this rhetoric “would be tantamount to destroying the foundations of the state ideology.” There is a notion, popular in Russia and among some Western analysts, that this anti-Americanism is a response to perceived threats to Russia’s security — above all, NATO expansion and missile defense in Eastern Europe. Yet top military experts like Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a former high-level official in the Russian Defense Ministry, are convinced that neither the missile shield nor NATO expansion pose any military threat to Russia.
Russia’s post-cold war humiliation is real. But as the human rights activist Elena Bonner, widow of the great scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, told me recently: “Nobody humiliated Russia. Russia humiliated itself.”
In the post-Soviet era, many Russians are angry because their country has neither the stature nor the living standards that they believe it deserves. Polls shows that most Russians actually favor a Western way of life. Nearly two-thirds would rather live in a well-off country than in one that is poorer but more powerful and feared by others. Unfortunately, most also believe their country will not reach Western levels of well-being any time soon, if ever. As frustrations mount, it is often easier to blame an external force than the country’s own failings. It doesn’t help that the 1990s, when pro-Western attitudes were at their peak, are remembered as a time of poverty and insecurity.
The result is an inferiority complex toward the West and, in particular, the United States, as the pre-eminent Western power and cold war rival. This widespread sentiment combines admiration, envy, grievance, resentment, and craving for respect and acceptance as an equal. Most Russians viewed the recent conflict in Georgia as a victory over the Americans — a matter less of strategic self-interest than of psychological self-assertion.
In his Nov. 5 speech, President Medvedev asserted that “we have no inherent anti-Americanism.” True enough, but in recent years, anti-Americanism has been carefully cultivated by official and semi-official propaganda, especially on government-controlled television, which manipulates popular insecurities and easily slides into outright paranoia.
In 2005, Sergey Lisovsky, then the deputy chairman of the Committee on Agricultural and Food Policy of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that the avian flu was a myth created by the Americans to destroy Russia’s poultry farming industry. This year, Russian television commemorated the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, with a prime-time program promoting the conspiracy theory that the attacks were engineered by American imperialists in order to unleash war. A staggering 43 percent of Russians agreed in a poll last year that “one of the goals of the foreign policy of the United States is the total destruction of Russia.”
Today, the government may be especially anxious to ratchet up anti-Americanism in response to the election of Mr. Obama, who is likely to make it more difficult for Russia to exploit animosity toward the United States in Europe and even the Third World.
Mr. Obama and his administration need to respond with both firmness and flexibility. He should indicate that we will help the democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to resist Russian bullying while also making it clear that we do not seek confrontation with Russia for confrontation’s sake.
One of Mr. Obama’s top Russia advisers, Michael McFaul, has suggested offering Russia a path toward membership in NATO. The current Russian leadership would, of course, reject any such offer, because it would entail democratic reforms that Russia is not willing to undertake. But the offer would give Russian reformers a tangible goal, and make it harder to convince ordinary Russians that America will always treat Russia as the enemy.
Mr. Obama should make the offer in person, during a trip to Russia. Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1988 went a long way toward dispelling anti-American stereotypes in the minds of many Russians during the twilight of the cold war. Mr. Obama, the object of a great deal of curiosity and fascination, is one American politician who could repeat that feat.
To this, American Conservative's Daniel Larison responds:
The main claim that Lieven and I and others make that, in his words, “Russian policy at the moment is overwhelmingly a reaction to what the West is doing” is strongly disputed or simply ignored by a disturbingly large number of people in American government and media. To take one example, today Cathy Young bores us with yet another of her myopic columns disputing precisely this claim, the recognition of which is vital to correcting the errors of the last two decades. Inside government, it is more or less taken as a given that the Russians really have nothing to complain about. The administration maintains, however implausibly, that missile defense in Europe has nothing to do with Russia, NATO expansion has nothing to do with Russia, and on and on. These people are somehow unable or unwilling to comprehend that power projection and expansion of a military alliance to Russia’s doorstep will trigger and have triggered hostile reactions.
If Moscow cultivates or uses anti-American sentiment for its own purposes, which is actually beside the point, that sentiment exists and has been increased extraordinarily by what the U.S. government has done and what it proposes to do in post-Soviet space. One of the most dominant myths that prevails in America today is that anti-Americanism is merely an expression of envy and dissatisfaction in the failures of one’s own society (Young recites all of this as you would expect) and has nothing or next to nothing to do with the substance of policy and the aggressive interference that the policy often represents. One of the biggest obstacles to radical change in our Russia policy is this inability or unwillingness to understand this, just as our government seems unable or unwilling to understand why anti-Americanism in Turkey of all places is at record highs. It is much more reassuring to hear that this is just something that results from the actions of a foreign government, which allows us to overlook our role in generating these resentments and reactions.
Allow me to bore you -- "you" being the "us" Mr. Larison refers to -- with a few more thoughts. First of all, I have never claimed that all anti-Americanism is "an expression of envy and dissatisfaction in the failures of one's own society." I do, as a matter of fact, think that the unilateralism espoused by the Bush administration in GWB's first term was an egregiously bad idea. (In the early days of the war in Iraq, I attended a talk by Charles Krauthammer at the Manhattan Institute arguing that in our new unipolar world, the U.S. should make foreign policy decisions on its own and merely pretend to consult our allies to make them feel better. Uh-oh, I thought.) It not only caused a justified backlash, it also empowered authoritarians like Vladimir Putin to think that "might makes right" was the new American philosophy, so why not get in on the game.
Anti-Americanism in Turkey is a whole other story. It stems mostly from a controversial 2003 incident that included possible questionable activity by Turkey aimed against Iraqi Kurds, and possible mishandling of a sensitive situation by U.S. forces. The resulting bad feeling in Turkey has been further fed by the anti-American, anti-Semitic blockbuster film Valley of the Wolves Iraq, which accuses the U.S. of killing Iraqis for their organs and alleges that the human organ trade was a principal motive for the invasion of Iraq. (And you thought blood for oil was bad.) Whatever responsibility the U.S. may bear for the deterioration of the relationship, is it totally preposterous to suggest that Turkey's internal tensions between secularism and fundamentalist religion might contribute to anti-Americanism (synonymous with rejection of modernity)?
I am not an expert on Turkey. I do, however, have some modest pretensions to being an expert on Russia. And if Mr. Larison thinks I'm bound by American myopia, here's an excellent short essay on the subject straight from the horse's mouth -- or from the belly of the beast, if you will -- by Moscow writer and essayist Lev Rubinshtein.
On to the issue of alleged American threats to Russia. We have heard a lot about how Russia has every reason to feel threatened by NATO "encirclement." Not long ago, there was an interesting exchange on Ekho Moskvy radio between former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and station chief Alexei Venediktov. It started when Gorbachev mentioned Bill Clinton's push for NATO expansion as proof that a Democrat in the White House isn't necessarily better for Russia.
Venediktov: But you weren't particularly scared of NATO.
Gorbachev: What's there to be scared of?
Venediktov: I don't know, but everyone seems to be scared.
Gorbachev: Actually, the point is not that people are scared of NATO but that this raises the question: what's the agenda behind it? I think they see in the United States that the situation is such that they are losing their global dominance, it's going away. Already today, the European Union has a population of half a billion, that's more than the USA. Today the combined GDP of the EU is more than that of the USA. They're lagging behind in the newest technologies. So what's the United States' answer to this? They plunge into an arms race in the belief that only strength can save them. I think they're mistaken.
I am looking in vain for the logic here; what on earth does NATO expansion have to do with the arms race, or with the US shoring up its dominance, considering that most of the EU is part of NATO? But that aside, what I find revealing is Gorbachev's off-the-cuff response, "What's there to be scared of"?
Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin (a former top-level Soviet arms negotiator) has an interesting article on the subject (in Russian). He points out that, given Russia's nuclear potential, a military attack by NATO forces on Russia is unthinkable no matter how many of Russia's neighbors join NATO. The real danger for Russia, in Dvorkin's view, is that it may face "civilizational isolation" if it continues to refuse to democratize and modernize its society, and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West.
In this context, it is useful to recall that Russia's sharp anti-Western and anti-American turn came after the "color revolutions" of Ukraine and Georgia -- peaceful revolutions from below that brought down authoritarian regimes by challenging rigged elections. The Putinistas got a bad scare (today Kiev and Tbilisi, tomorrow Moscow...), and their response was to blame the insidious U.S. conspiracy, with George Soros and George W. Bush implicated in the same plot.
As for the missile defense shield: whether or not it's an effective defense for a missile launched by a rogue state is an issue for another day. The point is, there is simply no way that it could protect the United States from a nuclear counterstrike by Russia (and thus give the U.S. the ability to make a first strike). Russian foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov acknowledges this, but then goes to say:
The missile-defense elements planned for Poland and the Czech Republic are the third phase of what is most likely a broader U.S. strategy to build a universal missile-defense shield that covers the entire globe. After the third phase we could see the United States building a fourth, fifth and sixth phase. The only reason why Washington would push so hard for the third phase in Central Europe -- which on its own is of questionable use -- would be if that project were a stepping stone toward something much larger and strategically significant: that is, if we are talking about the construction of a global missile-defense system that could protect the United States from any threat from any corner of the world. There are serious doubts that this is technologically possible, but this could change in the future. And if it does, the strategic balance in the world would shift dramatically because it would remove the basic principle that has ensured stability in the past -- the threat of mutually assured destruction.
So the threat to Russia is something that might happen in a distant, not-yet-technologically possible future? Frankly, this sounds both paranoid and unconvincing, particularly given that the U.S. has repeatedly offered to allow Russian inspectors on the sites in Eastern Europe and proposed extensive collaboration on missile defense.
We should, absolutely, cooperate with Russia on guarantees of mutual security. But this cooperation should focus on real threats, not threats to Russia's oversized ego and to its increasingly ridiculous delusions of being a great power.