The Russian Dilemma

In the totalitarian Soviet Union, the older generations grudgingly respected America, and most of the youth secretly admired her.  But in present-day post-communist Russia, the United States is hated by the majority of the population.  In fact, polls today reveal that it is the Russian youth who are particularly hostile to America.  Somehow, Russia's anti-Americanism is far worse now than it was during the Cold War.

So why is Russia enveloped in such a powerful blanket of mistrust and hatred for the United States?

In many ways, the roots of current Russian negativity toward the United States go back to the earliest days of post-communist Russia and her president, Boris Yeltsin.  The main components of Yeltsin's foreign policy were introduced to the world in a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress during his visit to the U.S. in 1992.  The speech itself contained an expression of Yeltsin's admiration for the American political system, the main ingredients of which he wanted to see implanted in the organization of new Russia.  Very importantly, President Yeltsin shared his dream about the establishment of an alliance between his country and the United States.

The American reaction to this momentous statement wasn't encouraging.  The sudden collapse of communism required American action of the same magnitude as the Marshall Plan, but President George H.W. Bush allowed for no such thing.  The consequences were fatal for the prestige and intentions of President Yeltsin -- as far as Mr. Yeltsin was concerned, he was forced to end his mandate prematurely after causing the bitterest possible disappointment in his politics amongst the Russian people.  Thus, the United States lost the potential for a reliable, long-term Russian partner.

In the beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin, who in many ways turned out to be the kind of statesman Russia needed at that time, was ready to collaborate with the United States against the dark forces of radical Islam.  Later, however, President Putin's attitude toward the United States hardened to the point of transforming anti- Americanism into the cornerstone of Russian foreign policy.

Maybe Putin's KGB background forced him to see the imprint of Washington on the scene of every development he happened to dislike.  Case in point: for Putin, the desire of many Eastern Europeans to join a unified and democratic Europe was nothing more than an American-inspired plot designed to isolate Russia and deny its "natural" rights in the region.

Based on similar distorted images, Russian foreign policy took the form of a series of moves designed to counter any American action around the globe.  Father Iakov Krotov, an outstanding Russian religious and political writer, had his point well-taken when he compared the present Russian policy toward the United States to the game of a mediocre chess player who can't do anything more than repeat the moves of his adversary.  Moscow's role in instigating opposition to Georgian separatism as a reaction to American support for Kosovar independence is a prime example. 

What the high-level chess players in Moscow are missing are the actions of a much more dangerous adversary.  Supported by the activities of the ubiquitous Wahhabist "foundations," Islamic militants have managed to establish their stronghold on Russian soil.  A long time ago, the nationalist conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan was transformed into a jihadist assault on the very essence of Russian statehood, tradition, and culture.  From the carnage that took away the lives of hundreds of children between the walls of a school in Beslan all the way to the recent bloodshed at one of the busiest airports in Moscow, the militant Islamists have left their imprint on the face and soul of Russia -- not to mention a grim forecast for Russia if they are victorious.

Of course, the jihadists are pursuing the same aim with regard to the United States.  This fact provides a strong enough incentive to the policymakers of both the U.S. and Russia to break the vicious cycle of old-fashioned stereotypes, mistrust, and hostility and face the communality of their interests (so obvious in Afghanistan, for instance). 

Russia, for her part, needs to recognize the danger of militant Islam and join forces with everyone ready to resist it.  The problem is that the window to act on this conclusion is fast closing.

Georgy Gounev is a historian and political scientist who teaches Middle East history and international relations at three colleges in Southern California.  Gounev is the author of The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon, to be published spring 2011.
In the totalitarian Soviet Union, the older generations grudgingly respected America, and most of the youth secretly admired her.  But in present-day post-communist Russia, the United States is hated by the majority of the population.  In fact, polls today reveal that it is the Russian youth who are particularly hostile to America.  Somehow, Russia's anti-Americanism is far worse now than it was during the Cold War.

So why is Russia enveloped in such a powerful blanket of mistrust and hatred for the United States?

In many ways, the roots of current Russian negativity toward the United States go back to the earliest days of post-communist Russia and her president, Boris Yeltsin.  The main components of Yeltsin's foreign policy were introduced to the world in a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress during his visit to the U.S. in 1992.  The speech itself contained an expression of Yeltsin's admiration for the American political system, the main ingredients of which he wanted to see implanted in the organization of new Russia.  Very importantly, President Yeltsin shared his dream about the establishment of an alliance between his country and the United States.

The American reaction to this momentous statement wasn't encouraging.  The sudden collapse of communism required American action of the same magnitude as the Marshall Plan, but President George H.W. Bush allowed for no such thing.  The consequences were fatal for the prestige and intentions of President Yeltsin -- as far as Mr. Yeltsin was concerned, he was forced to end his mandate prematurely after causing the bitterest possible disappointment in his politics amongst the Russian people.  Thus, the United States lost the potential for a reliable, long-term Russian partner.

In the beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin, who in many ways turned out to be the kind of statesman Russia needed at that time, was ready to collaborate with the United States against the dark forces of radical Islam.  Later, however, President Putin's attitude toward the United States hardened to the point of transforming anti- Americanism into the cornerstone of Russian foreign policy.

Maybe Putin's KGB background forced him to see the imprint of Washington on the scene of every development he happened to dislike.  Case in point: for Putin, the desire of many Eastern Europeans to join a unified and democratic Europe was nothing more than an American-inspired plot designed to isolate Russia and deny its "natural" rights in the region.

Based on similar distorted images, Russian foreign policy took the form of a series of moves designed to counter any American action around the globe.  Father Iakov Krotov, an outstanding Russian religious and political writer, had his point well-taken when he compared the present Russian policy toward the United States to the game of a mediocre chess player who can't do anything more than repeat the moves of his adversary.  Moscow's role in instigating opposition to Georgian separatism as a reaction to American support for Kosovar independence is a prime example. 

What the high-level chess players in Moscow are missing are the actions of a much more dangerous adversary.  Supported by the activities of the ubiquitous Wahhabist "foundations," Islamic militants have managed to establish their stronghold on Russian soil.  A long time ago, the nationalist conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan was transformed into a jihadist assault on the very essence of Russian statehood, tradition, and culture.  From the carnage that took away the lives of hundreds of children between the walls of a school in Beslan all the way to the recent bloodshed at one of the busiest airports in Moscow, the militant Islamists have left their imprint on the face and soul of Russia -- not to mention a grim forecast for Russia if they are victorious.

Of course, the jihadists are pursuing the same aim with regard to the United States.  This fact provides a strong enough incentive to the policymakers of both the U.S. and Russia to break the vicious cycle of old-fashioned stereotypes, mistrust, and hostility and face the communality of their interests (so obvious in Afghanistan, for instance). 

Russia, for her part, needs to recognize the danger of militant Islam and join forces with everyone ready to resist it.  The problem is that the window to act on this conclusion is fast closing.

Georgy Gounev is a historian and political scientist who teaches Middle East history and international relations at three colleges in Southern California.  Gounev is the author of The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon, to be published spring 2011.