The United States comes up constantly when you talk to Russians about their country's place in the world. But the conversations tend to go a lot differently than many Americans might expect.
In the US, the common view is that Russians feel aggrieved by the loss of the Soviet Union and all the respect that came with being a global superpower. Russia's acts of aggression in Europe, in this telling, are all about challenging the American-led order as a way to prove Russia's might and importance. This aggression is wildly popular among Russians, many Americans believe, because it makes them feel patriotic and powerful to bully the West, and particularly the US, which they blame for Russia's problems.
"Russia took off its ideological blinders in 1991, but America still seems to have them on"
There is certainly truth to this, but it's just a piece of the truth. Rather, when you speak to influential people across institutions and the political spectrum in Russia, as Amanda Taub and I did during a recent reporting trip there, the story you hear over and over is one of Russia's fundamental weakness. And you hear a preoccupation with the United States that goes far beyond what even many Americans, who are famously narcissistic about our country, would expect.
In this telling, Moscow capitulated at the end of the Cold War, and even tried to make itself a friend to the far more powerful United States. But an irrationally aggressive America has instead sought repeatedly to weaken, control, or even destroy Russia. Their country, in this view, is insecure against an overwhelmingly powerful West. Its actions that we see as aggressive are actually defensive. And Moscow is kept safe only by careful vigilance and by the nuclear arsenal that you hear Russians cite over and over.
This is the version of history you hear in Russia from detached foreign policy pragmatists, from pro-Putin ideologues and anti-Putin ideologues, even from members of the pro-Western political opposition who support what they believe be to a Western agenda of weakening Russia.
There's a quote that speaks perfectly to this Russian worldview — and how Americans misunderstand it — in the most recent issue of Russia in Global Affairs, a Russian foreign policy journal that is widely considered to reflect the views of Russia's foreign policy establishment. The quote is from a Q&A with Vladimir Lukin, a prominent Russian diplomat and liberal politician who previously served as ambassador to the US:
Interviewer: In his 1994 book "Diplomacy," Henry Kissinger writes that "integrating Russia into the international system is a key task" for the United States. But as he was saying this, the Americans were actually pushing Moscow away with their policy. Why?
Vladimir Lukin: It is in the genes. America has a simple ideology – that there is only one truth in the world, that truth is held by God, and God created the United States to be an embodiment of that truth. So the Americans strive to bring this truth to the rest of the world and to make it happy. Only after that will everything be well. This ideology has a strong influence on their policy. A wise traditionalist and a geopolitical expert, Kissinger had good reason to call such politicians "Trotskyites" for advocating a world revolution, albeit in their own way, but always in the front and in shining armor. This is a tempting ideology and has been professed by different countries at different times, not only the United States.
Lukin is hardly seen as an anti-American hard-liner in Russia — rather, he's considered to be an objective expert on the United States and a highly professional diplomat. He is a founding member of the liberal opposition party Yabloko. That he would get the United States so obviously wrong — what Americans would call defending democracy and human rights, he sees as a far more radical and explicitly religious agenda of "advocating a world revolution" — is troubling. But his view is a common one, and that tells you a great deal.
The interviewer's response is similarly telling: "So Russia took off its ideological blinders in 1991, but America still seems to have them on. The Soviet Union is gone, but the policy against it is not."
This narrative of an inherently aggressive America is one we heard over and over in Moscow, not just from people who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive, anti-American policies but even from those who oppose them. In this view, American politics and policies are bent on, and in many ways driven by, a hatred of Russia and desire to destroy or at least control it. Russia has had no choice but to meet American aggression with defensive actions such as putting nuclear-capable missiles in Europe or arming eastern Ukrainian militias at threat of genocidal extermination by American-backed fascists, if only to deter the US from further actions that could lead to all-out war.
It's not hard to poke holes in this Russian worldview. As Stephen Sestanovich, a longtime senior State Department official who helped engineer the Clinton administration's Russia policies, wrote in a recent article for the American Interest, even the "pragmatic" Russian case for annexing Crimea in March 2014 makes little strategic sense:
Putin has repeatedly claimed that in seizing Crimea he kept the United States from taking over Russia’s historic naval base there. Washington, he warned, might have moved its own forces forward so as to change the balance of power in the Black Sea. To this, one has to ask: Which forces, forward from where, and to advance what American goal? Today the United States no longer even bothers to keep a carrier group in the Mediterranean, as it did for half a century. What would make a Russian military planner think it had any interest in the Black Sea?
Yet this was the worldview we heard even from professionals and politicians in Russia who oppose anti-Western policies. One foreign policy expert who wished for rapprochement with the West sighed to us that it would be impossible because Hillary Clinton, whom he said was widely viewed as irrationally anti-Russian, would soon take office. At another meeting, a political opposition leader remarked offhand that he hoped the US would be successful in its efforts to engineer regime change in Moscow.
As Sestanovich writes in his essay, "The idea that the United States aims at a 'color revolution' in Moscow is the single most frequently repeated theme of official Russian rhetoric." This is more than paranoia or government propaganda; it is the accepted worldview: that Russia is under constant threat from a hostile and irrational United States.
Lukin, at another point in his Q&A, lamented that the US had rejected Moscow's gestures at cooperation in the 1990s and instead sought to surround Russia with a hostile NATO alliance, thus forcing Russia into a defensive crouch and creating today's tensions. "It was the biggest mistake the West made," he said, "and gradually led to the current situation."
These fears about America are likely to worsen in Russia if Hillary Clinton becomes president; many people told us she is seen by many Russians, especially Russian policymakers, as unbendingly hostile to Moscow and bent on the Putin government's destruction.
"Hillary is the worst option of any president," Fyodor Lukyanov, an influential Russian foreign policy expert who edits a leading foreign affairs journal and heads a foreign policy think tank, told us.
"Many people here believe that [she and her team] will try to come back to the line of the 1990s to encourage Russia into an internal transformation," Lukyanov added. "Not by force, of course, but to encourage some kind of social development that will upend the current system and will promote a new one."
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