The Feedback Loop

United States-Russia Relations

December 24, 2011 election protests in Moscow

Is Russia really America’s greatest geopolitical foe? Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested as much following the Obama-Medvedev open mic faux pas at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, in which our president asked his Russian counterpart for breathing room on missile defense. Election strategy aside, Romney’s comments are emblematic of a larger phenomenon evident in the national security and political establishments of both countries. Forty plus years of Cold War nuclear standoffs, proxy wars, and ideological showdown have inculcated a profound mutual suspicion that frequently results in strident rhetoric and occasionally tangible political showdowns.

Is the mistrust warranted? Does Vladimir Putin’s Russia pose a serious existential threat to the United States, or could it serve as a strategic asset? Views among American leadership and intelligentsia run the gamut on this and other related questions. Post-election Russia has also resisted the rapid development of the Arab Spring revolutions, leaving no easy answers. What follows is a brief exploration of Russia’s mentality toward the United States.

The first thing anyone should know about Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly the central player in the contemporary Russian drama, is that he is very much a product of the Cold War. He joined the infamous Committee for State Security, better known as the KGB, after graduating from Leningrad State University in 1975. As an agent, Putin was influenced by and grew to admire Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief whose penchant for crushing dissent and maintaining authoritarian governance in Russia and the Soviet sphere of influence was legendary.

When Putin came to power after the presidential elections of 2000, many thought he brought along that old KGB attitude and cultivated it in the Russian bureaucracy. Under Yeltsin, members of the state military and security apparatuses constituted approximately 11% of the government. In Putin’s early years, these siloviki (“people of force”) became roughly a fourth of the bureaucracy, particularly in “hard ministries” dealing with foreign policy, energy, and other crucial state interests.

In 2005 Putin expressed the sentiment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Russia’s national pride was damaged by the loss of a significant chunk of landmass, population, and economic productivity, and Putin’s regime has had little tolerance for attempts by Western powers to curtail the Kremlin’s efforts to reestablish power.

“We will do everything possible to prevent the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO,” declared Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2008, only months before the Russo-Georgian War that canned talk of NATO expansion. More recently, the Kremlin has pushed for an economic and political union called the Eurasian Union, building on the already-existing customs union between Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia. It has also sought to draw Ukraine into its orbit.

People protest outside the Moscow headquarters of Russia’s police force

Russia has also proved willing to work against Western ambitions in spheres beyond the former Soviet Union. The Russians used their Security Council veto power to effectively protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, an act which earned them vilification from Western commentators, many of whom argued there was a moral obligation for the UN to intervene there. This maneuvering made it appear as though Russia exports and protects global authoritarianism, just as the Soviet Union exported and protected global communism during the Cold War.

Worldwide, Russia has become a country that is perceived as corrupt, unjust, and sinister. The hyper-politicized trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of Yukos petroleum company, illustrated the state’s willingness to intervene in business affairs and also serves as a continuing deterrent to sustained foreign investment. The Committee to Protect Journalists decreed in 2009 that Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for investigative journalists.

The mysterious polonium assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in Britain and the discovery of the Anna Chapman spy ring in the US demonstrate that the Russian method is not limited to its borders. In light of all this and more, it is understandable why Romney and others view Putin as an authoritarian villain and Russia as a sinister geopolitical foe. In many ways, this neat narrative is overly simplistic. Unlike some Warsaw Pact countries, post-USSR attempts by Russia to develop liberal democratic institutions and a market economy have gone terribly awry.

At the apex of a constitutional crisis shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin ordered a tank attack against the Russian Parliament in October 1993, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people. Early experiences with privatization were also profoundly negative. The 1995 loans-for-shares scheme saw the government lease state industrial assets through a rigged auction and never pay back the loans, effectively selling the industries for an extremely low price and creating the infamous Russian oligarchs. Russia has fought two brutal wars against separatist Chechnya and suffered mass casualties at the hands of terrorists.

One of the most salient and scarring of these was the Sept 1, 2004 Beslan School hostage crisis. Perpetrated by Islamic militants, the crisis resulted in the deaths of at least three hundred hostages. Scarring incidents like these have contributed to a sense of chaos and uncertainty in the country, and in a way have led to the rise and popularity of Putin because he represents stability—a strong state authority dedicated to cracking down on corruption and terrorism. Shortly after Beslan, Putin ended popular election of regional governors and opted to have the Kremlin appoint them, subject to regional legislative approval.

Far from being manifestly undemocratic, Putin was curtailing a system where regional seats were bought and sold by local elites. Russians have largely been proud of Putin’s image on the international stage. Yeltsin was a drunkard and an embarrassment; Putin is a teetotaler and an outspoken advocate for Russian greatness at a time when Russians worry their status on the world stage is fading. This complicated Russian relationship with authoritarianism is by no means a recent phenomenon. Even now, the Russian people have by no means united in denouncing their Soviet past. Lenin’s haunting mausoleum continues to occupy prime real estate on the Red Square, and flowers are constantly laid on Stalin’s gravestone.

Contrary to popular belief, much of the electoral support Putin experienced in March was not fraudulent. This does not, of course, mean there were not irregularities in the last election. Few elections, in Russia or otherwise, are completely free and fair. But Putin is far from being reviled like Gaddafi or al-Assad–he is not the distant tyrant without the consent of the governed, as some in the West have tried to portray.

In fact, much of the antagonism Russia exhibits on the foreign stage has been in response to diplomatic incidents like the Romney comment or Hillary Clinton’s harsh criticism of the March elections. This is the feedback loop of United States-Russia relations, in which American politicians issue harsh rhetoric and Putin fires back, causing Americans to see him as a hardliner trying to undermine our country.

If American politicians want a more democratic and cooperative Russia, it is imperative to keep the Russian boat steady and keep interference in Russian domestic political affairs to a minimum. This is critical not only to advancing American interests (e.g. nuclear non-proliferation and balancing China), but also because the easier it is to point to protestors as agents of American influence, the easier it is to discredit them. The unipolar moment is past, and Russia may be a key component of a new multipolar world order, but Americans ought to maintain a healthy awareness of the complexities of Russia.

To do otherwise is to risk misunderstanding and mistrust, both inimical to a peaceful world order.


Michael Magzdik is a junior in Berkeley College.


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