When President Obama visits the Kremlin next week, he will face the task of trying to reset relations with a government that has built its power base and defined itself by its anti-American, neo-Cold War stance.
It’s an opportune moment for the United States to warm up a frosty relationship. Moscow could help on some of Washington’s most intransigent foreign policy troubles, including Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. But in Russia, there is scant evidence of a desire for a fresh start.
Despite a reshuffle of power that installed Russian leader Vladimir Putin as prime minister and his career underling, Dmitry Medvedev, in the presidency, the Kremlin’s policies remain unchanged, including its habit of drumming up anti-American sentiment to bolster political power at home.
Shortly after it warmly welcomed Obama to the White House, the Kremlin lavished a $2-billion loan on the government of impoverished Kyrgyzstan, which in turn evicted the U.S. military from a base considered strategically important to the war in Afghanistan.
Orchestrated in Moscow, the power play cost the United States months of embarrassment and a rent increase of more than $40 million to persuade Kyrgyzstan to reverse its decision.
Russia risks destabilization on its borders if the war in Afghanistan further deteriorates. And on Friday, a senior official said the Kremlin would allow the U.S. to ship weapons headed for Afghanistan across Russian territory.
But analysts said Moscow still feels a compulsion to interfere with U.S. goals. Anti-Americanism, some say, has deep roots in Russia’s view of itself, its insecurities and aspirations to become a superpower once more.
“Domestic politics is very much grounded on opposition to the West,” said Denis Volkov, a researcher at Moscow’s Levada Center who has conducted polls on Russian attitudes toward America. “It’s very often used as an excuse, as a pillar of the popularity of Russian leaders and as the proof of the rebirth of Russian power.”
In Russia, cozy ties with the West are associated with the impotence, humiliation and corruption of the 1990s. Hostility, on the other hand, is considered a hallmark of strength, smacking of Soviet empire and Putin’s oil-rich ride in the presidency.
It’s not all empty posturing. There are serious, stark differences between the two countries. Russia feels both insulted and threatened by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created during the Cold War as a deterrent to the Soviet military, into countries along its border and U.S. plans to build a missile shield at Russia’s edge. And it is enraged by what it sees as U.S. meddling in the domestic politics of onetime client states Ukraine and Georgia.
But those issues are expected to be publicly downplayed at the summit, where the focus will be on less politically barbed agenda items: reducing nuclear stockpiles and sealing the agreement to transport lethal supplies into Afghanistan. But for Russia’s power structure, analysts say, the backdrop of hostility and distrust is unlikely to change.
“There’s no future in Russia for pro-American policy,” said Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the World Security Institute in Washington. “You can build your whole career based on anti-American policy -- build a political career, become a famous journalist or public figure. But if you promote the idea of friendship with America, you’ll be denounced immediately.”
The Cold War is a faded relic in American memory. Now there are Iran and North Korea to worry about; a few years ago, there was Saddam Hussein. And so it is perhaps easy to forget that, in Russia, the Cold War remains a poignant and powerful idea.
Talk of current events often conveys the distinct sense that Russia is clinging to the idea of an American threat. If there is no hostility with the United States, the thinking runs, it can only mean that Russia is no longer important enough to merit it. And that’s unpalatable to Russia’s political elite.
When Russian tanks and warplanes poured over the border last summer to battle Georgian troops in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Russian news reports ascribed the war to U.S. missteps, primarily Washington’s backing for the anti-Russian president of Georgia, a nation Moscow regards as within its rightful sphere of influence.
Russian leaders believed the U.S. had set the stage for the war when it recognized the independence of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia. Traditionally protective of Serbia’s interests, Moscow was infuriated by the move, and said it would set a precedent for other rebel republics to secede.
“We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War,” Medvedev thundered last summer.
The Russian president’s rhetoric has since softened. And in the months since Vice President Joe Biden first called for the two countries to “push the reset button,” it has become clear that the Obama administration’s hopes are pinned on Medvedev.
This week, Obama accused Putin of keeping “one foot in the old ways” of the Cold War. But in their own country, the two Russian politicians are regarded as functioning in tandem -- with Putin, not Medvedev, unmistakably the senior member of the duo.
When financial crisis gripped Russia last fall, Putin angrily blamed the United States, and Russian leaders held up their nation’s follow-on unemployment and bank collapses as proof that too much power was centralized in the United States. When swine flu circled the globe, Russia banned American meat imports despite their irrelevance to the epidemic.
With the advent of the Obama administration, some in the Kremlin have become nervous about the prospect of eased relations, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the New Eurasia Foundation think tank in Moscow. They half-welcome any ills that can be handily blamed on the U.S., he said.
“They are concerned that their attempts to sustain this fortress mentality in Russia will be deflated,” he said.
Almost two years ago, as Putin prepared to turn the presidency over to Medvedev in an election that cut out any serious opposition, loathing of Washington reached a new pitch of intensity in the Russian news media. The Kremlin was fretting, somewhat inexplicably, since Putin and his party enjoyed sincere popular support, that street demonstrations might erupt in the style of the government-toppling protests in Georgia and Ukraine.
In this atmosphere of heightened anxiety, a documentary called “Velvet.ru” appeared on state television to warn Russians of the threat at hand. This was the gist:
The U.S. State Department and the CIA, jealous of Russia’s vast oil, gas, timber and diamond riches, were backing anti-Kremlin activists in a bid to overthrow the government and dismantle the country.
“They’re already here on our threshold, agents and professional provocateurs, preparing for a coup in Moscow,” the narrator warned. “In American perception, this state should disappear. Russia should break into pieces.”
Sergei Markov, a ruling party lawmaker and political analyst who’s known as one of the Kremlin’s most prominent spin doctors, argues that Russia is not fundamentally anti-American. On the contrary, he says, Russian politicians are simply responding to hostile policies.
At the same time, he agreed that no Russian politician would dare to promote closer cooperation with the United States.
“It would be like somebody in the United States saying, ‘Osama is great,’ or somebody in Israel saying, ‘Hamas is great.’ ”
As for the notion of resetting relations, he waved it away.
“The Kremlin doesn’t think the U.S. will change,” he said.