The recent spy scandal in Moscow has added to the ongoing discussion of Russian official anti-Americanism. The decision to widely publicize the capture of a CIA operative trying to recruit an FSB officer has been linked to the mounting pressure on externally funded Russian NGOs to declare themselves “foreign agents,” as a new Russian law demands. The atmosphere that this created led some observers to muse about “Stalinism light” and talk about the Kremlin’s self-image of a besieged fortress.
At the same time, the master of the Kremlin himself is preparing to engage with U.S. President Barack Obama in the run-up to their meeting on the margins of the G8 summit in June. After recent visits to Moscow by the U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev is now holding talks at the White House. America and Russia have even teamed up to try to do the near-impossible: to bring the civil war in Syria to a close.
So what is going on?
Anti-Americanism is a global phenomenon, but each national variety has its own distinct features. Russia’s has had something to do with the legacy of the forty-year-long Cold War, and rests on the even more ancient foundation of the Soviet bureaucracy’s traditional xenophobia.
What is more recent, and somewhat more relevant, is the resentment that many members of the current Russian political elite have felt toward the U.S. government’s treatment of their country in the aftermath of the Cold War. Subsequent U.S. military operations in the Balkans, Iraq, and Libya have compounded this feeling of impotence. All of the above, however, has virtually nothing to do with the current bout of anti-Americanism, which is about Russia’s domestic politics, not U.S. foreign policy.
President Vladimir Putin appears to believe that the mass street protests that became such a salient feature of Moscow’s political landscape in 2011–2012 had been conceived and funded by the U.S. government. He said as much himself. When Putin celebrated his victory in the presidential election of March 2012, he definitely looked like someone who had just rebuffed another Western attempt to subjugate Russia. To put it bluntly, Putin is a czar who sees the opposition outside the Duma as a bunch of would-be revolutionaries who absolutely have to be stopped.
Once back in the Kremlin, Putin resolved to weed out all potential sources of what he regarded as foreign influence on Russian domestic politics. Rather than closing down those NGOs that were leaning toward the opposition or were just openly critical, he chose to have them discredited. He achieved that through legislation ruling that any organization that accepts foreign money and engages in anything remotely political is to bear the stigma of a “foreign agent.” In addition, Putin broadened the notion of what constitutes a state secret and ordered government officials and politicians to close their overseas bank accounts.
That strategy of branding the Kremlin’s more outspoken opponents as foreign agents could only work if the population at large bought into it. In other words, its success depended critically on the effectiveness of the official TV-spread propaganda in creating an image of Western “competitors” seeking to weaken Russia, steal its secrets, and undermine its unity from within.
As much as this strategy has incensed Russia’s liberals, it has been more successful than not. Not only have all the factions in the Duma supported the NGO law, but the population at large has been mostly in agreement with the need to limit foreigners’ reach in Russia—or they have been indifferent to the entire controversy. The NGOs themselves rebelled against the law, refusing to sign up as “agents,” which provoked a less-than-gentle reminder from the authorities in the form of mass inspections of their books and a warning to either abide or go out of business.
Another element of Russia’s anti-Americanism is linked to the construction of an official version of Russian patriotism, which Putin has undertaken to build. Such an approach is backward-looking and clearly disappointing, even though Russia is hardly alone in creating its official patriotism in opposition to a stronger foreign power thought to be harboring designs on it.
Thus, Russia’s most recent version of anti-Americanism is essentially about Russia. More specifically, it is about Russian domestic politics. As such, it is the authorities’ reaction to a phenomenon called the “Russian Awakening”: a gradual maturing of Russian society, some of whose members are stepping out of their private niches into the public arena.
All this is relevant to foreign policy beyond the further deterioration of the Russian government’s public image in the West. For Putin and his colleagues, the global environment is highly competitive, and they want to marshal all their power at home to get ahead abroad. And now that they have put their house in order—at least for the time being—they feel confident enough to reach out to their partners in Washington and do business with them. It is almost as if Russia’s anti-Americanism had nothing to do with the United States.