Matvey Ganapolskiy Headshot

Where to Find an Enemy If There Is None?

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It's clear by now that Barack Obama is a president whose public persona provokes wide-ranging and contradictory feelings among Americans. That much was made clear by the encomium and blame-slinging aired across America in honor of the President's first 100 days in office. For Americans, the most important criterion for judging Mr. Obama is, quite naturally, his domestic policy. But what of foreign policy?

There exists, you see, an inordinately complex country. It goes by the name of Russia.

And, though I doubt it's a fact widely known to the average reader of the Huffington Post, anti-Americanism represents one of the cardinal principles of current Russian domestic policy.

Of course, it's not all that apparent from the outside. While traveling overseas, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin try to stay off the offensive, although their tones have a tendency to veer towards the pedantic. They speak English well, especially Medvedev; they wear Western suits and excellent Swiss watches. In this, they are much like the rest of the Russian political and business elite, who keep their money in American banks, have their children educated at the best American universities and buy large swaths of real estate in California.

Behind the facade of an Americanized elite, however, lies a belief, held with certainty by the majority of ordinary Russians, that the United States is to blame for Russia's misfortunes. The Russian authorities have been actively creating and propagating this image of America as aggressor since the division of the former Yugoslavia. When Ukraine and Georgia went through their pro-western democratic revolutions and the Kremlin began to fear Russian youth taking to the streets to demand change, too, the United States became an even more essential antagonist.

With its typical subtlety, the Kremlin conceived of a blunt but effective solution. They launched a set of news programs and talk shows , broadcast on the major state TV channels and dedicated to showing the way America was leading the world towards catastrophe.

If it's raining outside at a time of year when you expect good, old-fashioned Russian snow, well, that's because America won't sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. If the ruble is falling, that has everything to do with Americans keeping the dollar artificially high and nothing to do with Russia's primitive, clumsy economy. And if there's an economic crisis in Russia, then it's because of the economic crisis in America, an economic crisis purposely crafted so that Chinese manufacturing would slow, causing the Chinese to stop buying Russian oil in the same quantities and at the same crazy prices as before.

America is trying to destroy the world, and especially Russia -- this is the message spread through the disinformation on Russian TV.

Time passes. Things seem to change a little. The "authoritarian" Putin is replaced by the "liberal" Medvedev, who likes the internet and listens to "Deep Purple." And yet the anti-American programming continues.

The 100 day mark in Obama's presidency presented the pundits with an opportunity they were loathe to let slip. On the state-run channels, political analysts dressed in excellent western suits and expensive Swiss watches provided their viewers with simple evidence that "Obama talks a lot, but does nothing," that "he'll get nowhere in Afghanistan," and that "the United States finds itself on the brink of a social upheaval because of Obama's wrong-headed plan for healthcare reform."

It's hard to imagine a state-sponsored program appearing week after week on American television to vilify one of America's "partners" (which is, incidentally, what Putin and Medvedev call the United States.) This is the kind of programming one might expect to find sponsored by the governments of Iran or Venezuela. It should be, additionally, perfectly clear how stupid the allegations made on these programs are, especially with regard to Afghanistan. If American soldiers were not risking their lives protecting the southern underbelly of the former Soviet Union, the Taliban would have long since begun to lord it over the countries of the Central Asian region, and drugs would be sold in Moscow like pizza: with home delivery.

The typical young Russian wears Rifle-brand jeans, snacks on McDonald's, drives a Ford or a Chevrolet and watches American blockbusters. But if you ask this typical young Russian his opinion, he will tell you that America is the enemy, or that the US will keep out of Russian affairs if it knows what's good for it. Although in what affairs America has been interfering or what about this interference makes the typical young Russian mad, she won't be able to say. When polled, approximately a quarter of Russian respondents said they do not rule out the possibility of a (nuclear) war between Russia and America.

For the Russian propaganda machine, George W. Bush was a godsend. The war in Iraq, the idea for missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the open support for the Georgian and Ukrainian regimes, the nagging about Russian human rights violations: all these policies were so much fodder for the Kremlin's propagandists seeking to make the Russian people hate America.

And yet, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama's visit to Russia struck a serious blow to the entire program of Russian propaganda.

First, there were signals from Washington that the USA wants to "reboot the relationship" and that the missile defense systems might not be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Then, Mr. Obama himself arrived and, with a wide smile, told Mr. Medvedev he was a wonderful President and Mr. Putin he was an outstanding Prime Minister. With these smiles the principal issues were quickly resolved, with agreements reached on mutual nuclear restraint, a shared position on Iranian sanctions and, most important of all, granting the United States a corridor of aerial access to Afghanistan. The American army is now allowed to fly over Russia more than twenty times a day. Not a shabby outcome for any negotiation. Smiles aside, Mr. Obama still firmly asserted that the US would not accept Georgia's loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Finally, after solving all these matters of extreme importance to the American national interest, what did Mr. Obama do? He went home. He left without uttering a single one of those ritualized condemnations of the violation of human rights and civil freedoms in Russia so eagerly anticipated on the Russian side, in this way depriving them of the opportunity to expound on the fact that Russia had its very own, country-specific kind of "democracy."

Obama-style diplomacy has caught the Kremlin off-guard; the need to blame America remains, but now they're not sure what for. What's become of those hawkish Americans desirous of Russia's collapse? Where are they when America suggests working cooperatively with Moscow on missile defense systems?

Deprived by Obama of a "good fight" to fight, the Kremlin sees itself as swindled.

Whether one describes Obama's style in foreign policy as the use of "soft power" or of "the smile that forces cooperation," the fact remains that, though anti-American programs continue to run on Russian television, their ludicrousness must become more and more manifest, set as they are against a background of mutual agreements.

The essence of Obama's strategy in foreign policy is simple: he wants not to argue, but to come together on matters upon which both parties can agree, leaving aside more intractable issues for the time being. Clearly, this strategy is at odds with the Russian one, whereby the old antagonism with America ought always to be present, front and center. That "the outside enemy consolidates society" is, sad to say, the basic principle of domestic politics in Russia.

Of course Americans have a whole host of expectations for Obama, some of them disappointed. But, from where I sit, it's time to celebrate one of his undoubted achievements. It is not every President that can, in one visit, and without giving up any ground, expose the senselessness of a malicious and destructive propaganda campaign against his country. No matter that that campaign continues out of sheer inertia. When what you're dealing with is first-rate, Russian-made propaganda, giving it the lie is no mean achievement.



Translated from the Russian by Yael Levine