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Why Do They Hate Us? Ask the Russians

August 20, 2006 |
It’s folly to assume that a new, post-Soviet generation will seek greater harmony with the U.S. or that Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and market forces will necessarily integrate it into the West.
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The Bush administration’s imposition of sanctions on two Russian companies this month for selling military technology to Iran certainly sends the Kremlin a message -- but it won’t be the one the White House has in mind. The penalties will only deepen the hostility that Russia’s political establishment feels toward the United States.

That attitude came through loud and clear in many discussions I had with Russian academics, foreign policy specialists and senior officials during a recent trip to Moscow. President Vladimir V. Putin echoed it in his caustic dismissal of Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent complaint that Russian democracy was eroding. And his condemnation of the sanctions as an "illegitimate" attempt to foist U.S. laws on Russian companies was no less acerbic. He will doubtless respond in kind.

The anti-American nationalism so palpable in Russia today is rooted in the 1990s, the decade of Boris N. Yeltsin, whom many Americans credit with ending Soviet totalitarianism and introducing the country to democracy. Russians have a different take on those years. They remember the chaos; the economic contraction; the extreme poverty; the robber barons who, with the connivance of the government, made billions after taking over state-owned industries at bargain-basement prices; and the Yeltsin family’s rampant corruption. Rightly or wrongly, they associate these bad experiences with the United States. As one Russian official told me, "We followed your advice, and look where it landed us."

NATO’s expansion also feeds Russian anti-Americanism. During the debate here, U.S. experts confidently predicted that Moscow would adjust to the induction of its former Soviet republics -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- into the alliance just as it had when Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined. They were wrong.

The Russians I met see the U.S. drive to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as unfriendly and unnecessary, undertaken when Russia was weak and without regard for Russian sensibilities. They believe that the U.S. continues to trample over vital Russian security interests, particularly in the post-Soviet republics, where, as they see it, Russia has the right to be dominant by virtue of history and geography. The democratic revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, hailed in Washington, are viewed in Russia as a U.S. gambit to undercut Moscow’s influence in its own backyard by creating what one official sneeringly called "puppet governments." Russia, I was told, would never allow Georgia to retake its breakaway statelets in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; "blood would flow" if it tried. And were Ukraine admitted to NATO, the consequences would be dire: Russia would throw in its lot with China, demand that Ukraine return the Crimea and show Europe who’s boss when it comes to energy.

Russia’s anti-American nationalism also reflects current circumstances. Although their country has many problems, Russians feel stronger and more confident than they did in the 1990s and are determined to be taken seriously as a great power. The economic disaster of the previous decade is over. Russia’s gross domestic product has annually increased, on average, by 5% under Putin. Yeltsin’s drunken antics, which made Russians cringe, have been replaced by Putin’s authoritative and confident air on the world stage. One young Russian, who finished high school and college in the U.S., told me, with evident admiration, that Putin conducted himself at the G-8 summit with the assurance of an adult tending children.

When Russians look ahead, they feel that they are on a roll. Thanks to sky-high oil prices, Russia is flush with cash. It has paid off much of its foreign debt ahead of schedule. Europe is increasingly dependent on Russian energy, and Western oil and gas companies want to partner with their Russian counterparts, most of which are under state control. The West is desperate for Russian help on Iran and North Korea, and the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and hated in much of the world. All this makes Russians determined to push back when they feel that they are pushed.

It’s folly to assume that a new, post-Soviet generation will seek greater harmony with the U.S. or that Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (certain to occur) and market forces will necessarily integrate it into the West. When I asked the U.S.-educated Russian whether he shared the anti-American nationalism that I’d heard during my talks with Russian academics and officials, he said he did. What’s more, he added, his circle of friends was, if anything, even angrier at the United States for what he regarded as its arrogant foreign policy and disregard of Russia’s interests.

Many Russian businessmen want membership in the WTO and want market-oriented reforms to accelerate. But others, in business and in society generally, consider foreign competition a threat, believing that globalization will reduce Russia’s independence, contaminate its culture and allow foreigners to control its natural resources. Moscow’s populist mayor and a possible Putin successor in 2008, Yuri Luzhkov, said as much when, soon after last month’s G-8 meeting, he welcomed Russia’s failure to get into the WTO as a blessing. It would be a grave error to see his view, also regularly voiced by the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church (itself an important source of a nationalism) as idiosyncratic.

Russians have yet to determine the kind of society they want to build and what its relationship with the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, should be. Let’s hope that the country’s attitudes toward us will have a minimal effect on those choices.


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