Ordinary Russians generally like and admire American culture. They consume American TV and movies. Teenagers in Siberia follow the street fashion of New York. Even in isolated Yakutia you will find people who can rap along to Kanye West or Jay Z. Many older people can manage a few bars of Elvis or Sinatra.
The reverse is not true in the States. Few Americans could quote a bit of Pushkin. In fact, most US citizens have probably not even heard of him. Or Pasternak. Or Tolstoy. Regrettably, if you ask an average American for an opinion on Russia, the current likely answer is something that depicts the nation as their enemy.
This is very, very sad. Especially when Russia has no desire to be an enemy of the US and is not a threat to any genuine American interests. Actually, Russia is not even much of a danger to most of the things it’s supposed to be a danger to. Like the Baltic States, for instance. Or the EU project.
However, relentless anti-Russia propaganda in the US corporate media has brought us to this point. American elites are now more united in their disdain for Russia than they ever were during the Cold War. During that period, dissenting voices were heard. Now, they are completely frozen out.
Indeed, anybody with any real knowledge of Russia is condemned as “Putin’s shill” these days. Even academic heavyweights like Stephen Cohen. Thus, we have the bizarre situation where most American mainstream media commentators on Russia are people who have either never lived in the country or haven’t been there for years. Or both. If old Joe McCarthy himself was around, he’d be on CNN every five minutes.
The fact that genuine Russia analysts, who understand the country, have been replaced by neocon nutters who lump the nation in with the likes of Syria, ISIS and North Korea is, frankly, disturbing. Russia is not some martial lightweight; it’s the globe’s second strongest military power. Or maybe that’s the whole point? Russia is bigger and scarier than the aforementioned and presenting it as an imminent danger is more likely to secure increases in defense spending?
It’s also interesting to note that, almost to a man (or woman), the media figures calling for confrontation with Russia are the same people who pushed for conflict with Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The current climate is toxic. Washington-Moscow relations are at all time low. The media, in both countries, fuels the tension. Yet, to understand where we are, we first need to understand how we got here.
The American establishment hates Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. For daring to challenge Washington’s authority, he’s been designated as the bad guy du jour. With Bin Laden and Saddam dead, many imagined that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un would inherit this role. However, unlike Al Qaeda, North Korea is too weak and insular to threaten the US directly. To preserve the military budget, which increased dramatically since 2001, they need an existential danger. Russia fits the bill.
It wasn’t always like this. After Bin Laden’s henchmen attacked the US on September 11, 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W Bush. He offered what the US needed and far more than any NATO members did. Intelligence, supplies, access to central Asia and transit across Russian territory. Putin even threw in the Northern Alliance to help America defeat the Taliban. This wasn’t popular with the Russian elite.
Before Putin, the 90s-era Boris Yeltsin government bent over backward to help the US. Indeed, Yeltsin even gave Bill Clinton a map of the electronic bugs in the US embassy in Moscow as a sign of friendship. At this stage, NATO had just 12 member states to resist the “Soviet threat.”
How did the Bush administration repay Russian loyalty? They continued to expand NATO eastward, despite assurances to the last Soviet government that it would never happen. Now, NATO comprises 28 countries – and there are a few more on its waiting list.
America continued to support every country and politician who portrayed themselves as a potential victim of Russia. While Putin was trying to foster a new era of cooperation, Washington just couldn’t tear itself away from Cold War thinking. Kremlin bad, Kremlin’s enemies good.
Since the turn of the century, politicians in ex-USSR states have had a clear path to riches. Simply sound as anti-Russian as possible and voila, money and support beyond their wildest dreams will suddenly appear, all thanks to Uncle Sam. The formula is repeated time and time again. Thus, we have the bizarre situation where US taxpayers are bankrolling a smorgasbord of ex-Communists, neo-Nazis and corrupt oligarchs across the former Soviet Union.
Russia has responded by developing ties with leaders opposed to the US. Syria’s Assad, Venezuela’s Chavez and Hungary’s Orban. Again, a nonlinear combination of conflicting left-wingers and their right-wing opposites. Amid all these geopolitical games, it’s like the Reagan-Gorbachev detente never happened. That said, Russia has so far restrained itself from actively supporting American enemies. If US hostility encourages Moscow to change tack, expect a run on tinned food and a Bay Of Pigs redux.
Alas, US aggression appears to be intensifying. In this year’s State of the Union speech, President Obama named only one country as an American enemy – Russia. The other adversary mentioned was ISIL.
In an earlier address, he also equated Russia to the Ebola virus. A gloating Obama claimed that Russia’s economy was “in tatters” and that the state was “isolated.” Neither of these statements is true. In actual fact, in many regions – including Asia and Latin America – Russia has more friends than the US.
Incessant propaganda reduces hopes of a thaw. Especially when most popular western press seems to simply regurgitate the government line these days. Again, the same useful idiots who shilled for the illegal Iraq war now turn their sights to Russia. For evidence of this, see Gekaufte Journalisten (Bought Journalism) by German journalist Udo Ulfkotte. In the bestseller, the former editor at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explains how many stories in the German media are essentially planted by the CIA.
At the same time, anti-Russia rhetoric in the US reaches new levels. Americans are bombarded with daily fear-mongering propaganda about “Russian aggression.” This is particularly pronounced on Fox News and CNN, where figures such as retired Major General Robert Scales bombard the airwaves daily. Scales recently called for America “to start killing Russians … killing so many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the motherland in body bags.”
Oddly, Russia is reducing media spending. This year, TASS news agency announced a 25 percent staff reduction and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the state’s official publication service (which also oversees Russia Beyond The Headlines and Russia Direct in foreign languages), released 10 percent of its employees. Also, RT’s budget is down 46 percent in dollar terms this year.
Shaken, not stirred
Meanwhile. Putin is smeared as a cross between a new Hitler and a James Bond villain. The Russian president is accused of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. In reality, Putin is a Russian nationalist. Indeed, his political mentor was Anatoly Sobchak, a noted and outspoken opponent of communism. Putin’s KGB past is also frequently used against him. In fact, the President was a low-ranking administrator, not a *Stirlitz-esque spy.
Putin himself believes that the west is implementing a policy of “containment” against Russia. Even the “shadow-CIA,” US-political intelligence firm Stratfor broadly agrees with this assessment. The agency’s chief, George Friedman, has often stated that US policy is to prevent a rival power emerging in Eurasia. In simple terms, this means that Washington loves Moscow when it’s weak, as in the 90s, but fears a successful Russia which could rival it.
Hence, the Kremlin now realises that using cooperation with the west to fuel economic growth is futile. This explains Russia’s enthusiasm for the BRICs movement. It has also led to a nascent alliance with China, one that may not be in Moscow’s long-term interests. However, Putin has calculated that the alternative, meekly cowering before Washington, is worse.
As Moscow-Washington relations atrophy, there are now two scenarios in play. America can continue its aggression and Putin, a moderate by Russian standards, could feel compelled to dust off the Soviet playbook. This would mean a tit-for-tat campaign to destabilise America’s near abroad as Washington has done, or attempted to do, in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. The far better option would be for the US to take a step back and attempt a rapprochement with Moscow before the present acrimony becomes systemic.
*Stirlitz (Maxim Maximovich Isaev) was a fictional Soviet spy, created by Yulian Semyonov. Best described as the USSR’s answer to James Bond.