Robert Coalson Headshot

Is Russia Ready To Make Nice?

Posted: Updated:

Ever since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden brought forth the "reset-button" theory of U.S.-Russia relations last month, there has been a seeming flood of goodwill between the two countries. When NATO decided on March 5 to resume contacts with Russia and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were seen smiling and laughing at one another, prospects for improved relations and reduced tensions seemed greater than they have in years.

"Unfortunately, our relations have degraded significantly over the past several years," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a U.S. commission on bilateral relations this week. "We are saddened by this fact. We believe we have every opportunity to open a new page in Russian-U.S. relations. The signals that we're receiving today from the United States -- I mean the signals I'm receiving from President [Barack] Obama -- seem entirely positive to me."

There are many reasons why relations "degraded significantly" over the last few years, and the Kremlin never seems to tire of enumerating the ones that have their roots in Washington -- the arrogance, ignorance, monomaniacalism, etc., of the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It is true now that there is a new administration in the United States, so perhaps it is reasonable to assume that some of the obstacles to better relations have been removed.

But not all of them. Despite Moscow's interest in promoting their "liberal, young president" on the world stage, there has been no regime change in Russia. The Kremlin, after all, made "stability" and "continuity" the main themes of its 2007 and 2008 election campaigns. And it is hard to deny that anti-Westernism, particularly anti-Americanism, is an important pillar of the Vladimir Putin political system in Russia.

The Kremlin has devoted a lot of time and energy over the last few years to convincing Russians that the country faces an existential threat from the United States -- that without the tough vigilance of Putin and his team, Russia would be partitioned and plundered. And this belief has taken root among Russians. A BBC poll last month found that just 7 percent of Russians believe the United States is a positive force in the world, while 65 percent view it as "mainly negative." Among the 20 countries surveyed, the average "positive" view of the United States was 40 percent.

A Levada Center poll released on March 5 found that 50 percent of Russians believe the country faces an external military threat (read: NATO). That represents a 10 percent increase since 2006.

Clearly, it will be hard for the Kremlin to turn this boat around now, and it is doubtful Russia's leaders would want to. From the global economic crisis, to terrorism, to drugs trafficking and other issues, they have gotten a lot of mileage of blaming the West. When protests erupted earlier this year over Moscow's policies on tariffs for imported cars, a Duma report blamed foreign agents. Need to discredit an opposition leader like Mikhail Kasyanov? Just claim that U.S. Senator John McCain likes him. When officials in St. Petersburg -- Russia's "window on the West"! -- needed a pretext for hyper-managing the local elections there earlier this month, they simply claimed that foreign agents had stepped up their activity in an effort to sabotage the country's democratic process. And the list goes on.

When the next wave of national elections come (and who knows when Putin will decide that should be?), we can expect another dose of "the West wants to create an Orange Revolution in Russia" at least as big as the one we got during the 2007-08 cycle.

Political and military commentator Aleksandr Golts offered, in a commentary translated here, a sobering view of Moscow's view of relations with the United States:

The problem is that Putin doesn't really need [better relations with Washington]. We are in the midst of a crisis. Good relations with the United States and with the West as a whole won't help -- there is no money in it. And you can't put hungry people to work with fairy tales about getting up off your knees and about how "Washington has been forced to acknowledge Russia's international authority."

No, for this you need stronger measures. For instance, a national mobilization against an insidious enemy who is preparing an imminent attack. And we aren't talking about China.

His conclusion is unambiguous: "The survival of the Putin regime does not depend on cooperation with the West but with a 'managed' chronic conflict."

Golts's use of the word "mobilization" reminded me of a piece by Mikhail Yurev -- an economist, businessman, former vice president of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists and a former deputy speaker of the State Duma -- that appeared in Finanasovyye izvestia on February 9 under the headline "Is It Time To Mobilize?"

Yurev begins with a hypothetical situation -- imagine that you are sent back to Stalin's Soviet Union in 1927 and given the opportunity to advise the dictator. And imagine further that you are fully aware that 14 years later, the country will be engaged in a life-or-death struggle for its very existence. What would you tell Stalin to do?

Yurev argues that any sensible person would basically tell Stalin to do what he, in fact, did -- use the country's rich human and natural resources to rapidly make up for its lagging industrial and military might. Collectivization, industrialization, repression. This was, he asserts, the country's only path to survival.

But what is the point? "The situation at the beginning of 2009 is not so very different," Yurev writes. "If the United States cannot pull out of the current crisis -- and that seems very likely -- then a war is also very likely, just like it was then. And guess who is going to be the first target. America itself won't get into the war -- it will send someone else, just like England sent us Hitler. And, instead of a normal war, it is capable of provoking a civil war by helping one or another antigovernment force. And our level of readiness for such a challenge now is lower than it was back then."

There seems to be little evidence that the ruling elite in Russia has stopped seeing the West, and the United States particularly, as Russia's enemy. They understand the domestic political consequences of doing so.

Cross-posted at RFE/RL's The Power Vertical.