By Dr. Matthew Crosston
There are numerous intellectual sources, from think tanks to governmental agencies, both in the United States and Russia, which are deeply concerned about the state of Russian-American relations.
Places like the Moscow Carnegie Centre or the Brookings Institution in Washington DC are regular go-to places for the media when seeking expert opinion and analysis. However, these centers of independent knowledge production have had a decided slant in allocating blame for the poor bilateral relations to the Russian side, with the explanations ranging from the fairly simple to the rather mystically esoteric.
“If America did not exist, Russia would have to invent it. In a sense it already has: first as a dream, then as a nightmare. No other country looms so large in the Russian psyche. To Kremlin ideologists, the very concept of Russia’s sovereignty depends on being free of America’s influence. Anti-Americanism has long been a staple of Vladimir Putin, but it has undergone an important shift. Gone are the days when the Kremlin craved recognition and lashed out at the West for not recognizing Russia as one of its own. Now it neither pretends nor aspires to be like the West. Instead, it wants to exorcise all traces of American influence.”
It is not difficult to find this Freudian-type of political psycho-babble today when it comes to ‘analyzing’ Russian positions. The United States tries to portray itself as the victim of a global oedipal complex when it comes to Russia: first Putin desperately craves daddy’s attention; then defiantly and recklessly rejects him; only to then petulantly try to run away from home. Most countries around the world would actually find it dangerously myopic and unhealthy to base its foreign policy on earning the ‘approval’ of another country. The far more standard approach to foreign policy formulation is to determine a country’s own national interests and craft an independent position best able to achieve its own optimal goals.
And that, incredulously, is what is being described above in America as a ‘shift:’ from craving attention to striving to exorcise American demons. In reality there is no shift at all: Russia has always been about Russia, as it expects America to be about America, France to be about France, Nigeria to be about Nigeria, so forth and so on. What Russia finds so irksome is that when it does what everyone else does on the issue of global positioning, it is judged as psychologically unstable or mentally deficient. What the American media outlets and think tank personalities fail to recognize is how much of this judgment is not from observable behavior or direct quotes from relevant actors, but is instead from so-called experts pushing a decidedly one-sided interpretation of the agenda.
Russia is not supposed to aspire to be a copy of or mimic for the West. Nor should it be allowing any particular American influence over its policy decisions. This is not said as an anti-American statement but rather as simple foreign policy logic: America would never strive to copy another country and it most certainly does not endorse another country trying to force-influence its foreign policy. So why should Russia? It is this very straightforward question that seems to never be asked by what are otherwise august media institutions and impressive political think tanks in the West.
Sometimes this tendency can reach near farcical levels. When Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign-relations committee, spoke about ridding Russia of dependence on America and even ridiculously commenting about fining cinemas that show too many foreign films, it was up to Western experts on Russia to recognize the absurd for what it is: just absurdity. Failure to do so is especially egregious given so much Western political analysis over the past fifteen years has lamented the strengthening and deepening of Putin’s own presidential power system. Decrying how little power sits within the legislative or judiciary branches of Russian government means it is nonsensical to then highlight parliamentarians as having real impact and relevance on Russian-American relations. But this happens quite a bit in American media outlets and think tanks without anyone ever taking the time to point out the blatant contradiction.
This bias is only more pronounced when you leave academically-oriented think tanks/news monitors and observe opinions within the corridors of American power. Traditionally, this decidedly anti-Russian fervor came from the Republican Party. However, this analysis would argue that except for a very brief and ultimately dashed Obama ‘reset,’ attitudes about Russian-American interaction within Washington DC has always been dominated in both parties by a largely Republican mindset.
That mindset sets a fairly stark characterization: Russia is an aggressive and untrustworthy dictatorship that is an innate contradiction to American values. As such it will inevitably always be a threat to U.S. interests and global security. By all indicators, Russia is a threat not just to itself and its immediate neighbors but to the entire world, masking its own domestic failings and instabilities with an aggressive foreign policy that will never acquiesce to a more peaceful and cooperative global community. Indeed, when American politicians specialize in ambiguous statements and plausible deniability, it is rather remarkable how freely the American Congress seems to deride Russia:
John Boehner: “It is increasingly evident that Russia is intent on expanding its boundaries and power through hostile acts.”
Ted Poe: “The Russian bear is coming out of its cave because it got its feelings hurt because of the fall of the Soviet Union, and not it is trying to regain its territories.”
Chris Smith: accused a “repressive Russian regime” of “coddling dictators” around the globe from Central Asia to Syria to Cuba and Venezuela.
Trent Franks: After the conclusion of an arms deal between Russia and Venezuela, President Putin was called a “thugocrat” engaged in “dangerous alliances.
Keep in mind all of the above statements were uttered before the 2014 crisis in Ukraine even broke out. So before the U.S. Congress saw what it considers undeniable and irrefutable proof of Russian aggression, it already viewed Russia as a corrupt kleptocracy willfully abusing human rights, powered by an irrational and paranoid hatred of the United States.
There also tends to be a failure to place Russian analysis through the looking glass of reciprocity. What this means is that current American thinking emphasizes how untrustworthy Moscow decision-makers are, or how there is no real point in talking with the Kremlin, while completely ignoring or dismissing the very real Russian criticism that lobs the same complaint back at Washington. President Putin openly and publicly discusses his lack of trust in American power and in the specific policy decisions emanating from the White House. It is because of this skepticism, even cynicism, that he claims forces his own lack of desire to engage the United States. There are simply too few voices at present trying to analyze this declared mindset as a legitimate position. As far as can be determined, the only reason this is not analyzed more seriously is because the competing alternative – that Putin is untrustworthy and Moscow is the cause of all communication breakdowns – is simply too powerfully accepted as a de facto axiom.
In short, if the United States does not trust Russia, it is because of how Russia behaves on the global stage and because of its own history on said stage. If Russia does not trust the United States, that is simply Russian posturing and a case of political transference, wanting to blame its own self-made problems on someone else so that it can avoid any accountability or being held responsible for poor performance. The issue at hand is how this is simply accepted rather than investigated. And how few so-called Russian experts are at present willing to step forward and shine a light on this intellectual insincerity. There are voices that decry a picture being painted that combines inaccuracy with heightened rhetoric while purposely ignoring mitigating contexts and less negative observations. However, those voices are extremely rare and at the moment easily drowned out by the drumbeat of Russian derision. Until those voices get louder or strive to become more prominent public figures in Washington, it seems there is little hope for an improvement in relations between the United States and Russia based on actual events in the real world.
Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science, Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program, and the Miller Chair at Bellevue University