Why we Liked Americans Better during the Cold War

Politico Magazine, 07.04.2015
Leonid Gozman, dirigente del Partido Liberal Ruso (SPS)

The United States has a short-term and a long-term problem in Russia. The shorter-term and easier problem is the hostile attitude of Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies toward Washington. The longer-term and much tougher challenge is the enmity of the Russian people themselves. It may astonish my friends in the West, but the attitude of Russians today towards the United States and Americans is worse than it was for most of the Cold War, when Americans were viewed as “good guys” living in a bad, imperialist state. Now, many Russians view not only U.S. leaders but U.S. citizens as “bad guys.”

And the trend-lines keep going in one direction: down. According to surveys conducted recently by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, the number of Russian residents who have a positive attitude towards the United States has dropped by almost three quarters in the last year, while the percentage of those with a negative attitude exceeds 80 percent. The share of Russians who describe relations with the U.S. as “hostile” surged from 4 percent in January 2014 to 42 percent in January 2015. Partly this is because as Russian democracy deteriorates, the Russian public seems ready to fall for even the most ridiculous notions floated by state-affiliated media outlets, such as claims that Americans adopt Russian orphans specifically to abuse them and sell their organs.

Yet anti-American propaganda is not alone to blame. It is important to understand that U.S. actions also played a role in escalating anti-Americanism in Russia. The biggest culprit has been NATO expansion, which many in Russia believe targets their country, aiming to surround and isolate it. The bombing of Belgrade also contributed, more because of the overt disregard for Russia’s opinion than because of the military action itself. The Iraq War, the intervention in Libya, and many other moves can be added to the same list.

Another reason for the deteriorating attitude towards the United States has been the fact that Russia’s cultural and historical identity has been ignored, despite the usual assurances of respect for Russian culture. For more than three centuries–starting with the reign of Peter the Great and particularly after the victory over Napoleon–Russia has seen itself as a great power. The sense of having a special mission has been with Russians even longer. Many in Russia are unwilling to accept a secondary role on the world stage. Neither the substance nor the style of U.S. actions has taken this into account in recent years.

Russia’s cultural and historical identity explains the resounding popular support in the country for Putin’s decision to annex Crimea. The approval rating for the move has consistently remained around 90 percent. Initially, only 1 percent of the population was categorically opposed and now, a year later, this number is at 2.6 percent. This has nothing to do with the supposed aggressive nature of Russians, nor with a desire to rebuild a lost empire. The annexation of Crimea–conducted without a single shot fired and without any casualties–was carried out under the rallying cries of helping Russians and restoring justice (a rationale that Russian citizens unfortunately believed), and it revived the victorious identity, the national pride, and the belief in Russia’s power and moral authority that had been lost with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Of course this does not absolve Russia of responsibility for its actions of the past year. Feeling offended in no way excuses aggression. And Russian society is not monolithic. The majority does support Putin’s policy on Ukraine, but there is a vocal minority – primarily educated city-dwellers–who speak out sharply against it, seeking peace with Ukraine rather than its subjugation, and cooperation with the United States rather than confrontation. Tens of thousands of people attended anti-war marches in Moscow. It is not correct to equate current-day Russia with its president. However, this is what House Resolution 758, passed by the U.S. Congress on December 4, 2014, does when–in condemning the actions of the Russian Federation—it makes no mention of the people of Russia, who are as interested in ending the war as the people of Ukraine.

The only long-term solution to this problem of rampant anti-Americanism in Russia is for Americans to better understand the broader Russian mindset. This is a nation that feels historically unlucky, subjected to a vengeful West that poured salt in its wounds after the Cold War by further cutting into its great-power status. It is also a nation that, frankly, is not especially fond of democracy. That’s the main reason for Putin’s enduring popularity.

At the same time there is hardly a monolith of opinion behind Putin and the Kremlin, and the Russian leader’s current policy is far from being in the interests of everyone in Russia. Russian businessmen suffer from corruption, scientists and academics—from the country’s isolation, members of the high-tech community—and from unraveling connections with the world’s most technologically advanced countries. Russian writers and artists suffer from ideological pressure. The annexation of Crimea took a heavy financial toll on the entire population. The war in the Donbass region, if it continues, will bring further human losses, primarily among the less educated and less affluent segments of the population.

Intoxication with the victory in Crimea will pass sooner or later, and then the U.S. government will need to seek a balance of interests not with Putin, but with the large number of groups that make up the Russian public, as well as with a new government of Russia that will represent the interests of the public. Only then can normal, constructive relations between Russia and the United States be restored.

The latest measures taken by the United States with regard to Russia affect (not always in expected ways) not only Putin’s policies, but also the sentiments of Russians towards the United States. From this viewpoint, the personal sanctions targeting “Putin’s friends” will not undermine and may even improve the image of the United States in the long term. Many of these individuals are perceived as corrupt, and are believed to have amassed their huge fortunes in disreputable ways. Personal sanctions also bring tension to the atmosphere around Putin, which was likely the objective of this policy’s authors.

The expansion of sanctions, however, will only further bring down the living standards of millions of Russians. This will not force the Russian government to change its policy on Ukraine, but it will worsen attitudes towards the United States.

Deliveries of U.S. weapons to Ukraine will unquestionably result in at least a temporary increase in anti-American sentiments in Russia. At the same time, these weapons could prevent new offensives by Russia-supported separatists in Ukraine. The one price that the Kremlin is not willing to pay for continuing its course in Ukraine is large-scale casualties affecting the entire country, which could – in combination with the economic crisis – lead to domestic unrest. In fact, human casualties are also the one price that Russian society is unwilling to pay. If it becomes clear that a local parity in armaments makes such casualties inevitable, there might be no more offensives, which would protect the lives of both Ukrainians and Russians. U.S. weapons could serve as the same kind of deterrents that the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers were for several decades. Of course, the most dangerous period will be the time between the announcement of deliveries and the actual arrival of weapons to the frontlines.

Thinking long-term, there are two other initiatives the United States should take. First, it should provide moral support to the people and organizations in Russia that fight for freedom and democracy in their country. Their moral and political resistance prevents, or at least slows, the descent of the country into archaic barbarity. They have been left in a one-on-one confrontation with the government in their country, but they should not feel all alone in the world. Support of Soviet dissidents had a major significance in its time and was duly appreciated by many in the U.S.S.R.

Second, the United States should expand, rather than cut back, exchange and direct assistance programs in science, culture and particularly education, no matter how difficult this is to do when the Russian government is doing all it can to impede or shut down such programs. Young people who learn about life in the U.S. through well-organized educational exchange programs or internships will never fall victim to primitive anti-Western stereotypes. Those who return to Russia to work will try to foster principles of freedom and openness in their own country, principles that are currently alien to much of the Russian population. Russia needs this for effective development, while the United States and the rest of the world need Russia to become an ally and not an enemy.

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