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Commentary: The Roots Of Russia’s New Anti-Americanism

  • Vladimir Pastukhov

Russia has no plans for a global confrontation with America -- at least not at this stage and not under this leadership.

Russia has no plans for a global confrontation with America -- at least not at this stage and not under this leadership.

Anti-Americanism is the Marxism of the Russian Spring and the religion of the “postmodern,” postcommunist Russian rebirth. It is both an instruction manual for any action and a universal excuse. As a new symbol of faith, it wields an absolute explanatory power. With its help, one can understand the cause of climate change, the roots of the global financial crisis, and the source of corruption in Russia. One can also answer the eternal question of why the water is shut off again.

Anti-Americanism is the new cult in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Old and young alike bow down and swear allegiance to it. Russia no longer loves America -- but, just like before, it cannot live without America. If there were no Americans, they would have to be invented.

Don’t Shake Your Fist Before The Fight

It is pointless to shake one’s fist after a battle, but it can be dangerous to do so before the fight. People might think you really are that tough and sweep you away just out of fear. Nonetheless, the Kremlin is frantically waving its arms, sending out mysterious threats and warnings to its former partner across the ocean. For its part, America is watching developments with a certain bewilderment, not understanding if this is the prelude to some sort of argument or an extravagant confession of love.

Everything has been thrown into one pile: nuclear blackmail; Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad; S-300s in Syria; bases in Cuba and Vietnam; some sort of comical ultimatums; and the endless baffling warnings of the Foreign Ministry, each one stricter than the last.

Obviously, this is not just the continuation of an old trend but rather a transition to something qualitatively different. There is something neurotic in the stylistics, and one sees a poorly concealed hysteria behind the numerous threats. Like any other type of hysteria, this new anti-American hysteria has completely down-to-earth and rational foundations. They are caprice, rage, and jitters -- which the Russian leadership is managing to experience all at once.

Caprice: Is This Really Hatred?

In part, the Kremlin is being capricious and doesn’t really have even a drop of anti-Americanism. On the world stage, Moscow is acting out a remake of the Soviet hit show We Will Bury You. The Kremlin bugbears are a fantastic bluff at a time when the real goals of Russian foreign policy are simple and straightforward. Moscow is sending an unambiguous signal: Leave us alone; don’t interfere in our affairs; and give us the territory of our former empire as a protectorate.

To the Kremlin, this message seems so simple, clear, and -- in its view -- fair that the West’s incomprehension is literally driving Russia’s leaders out of their minds. Growing weary from impatience, the Kremlin is trying to poke America, “hinting at” the correct answer. At the same time, Russia has no plans for a global confrontation with America -- at least not at this stage and not under this leadership. It will resolve its local micro-issues, while portraying them as global goals.

Ideally, the Kremlin sees Russia as a sort of South Korea. It would like to have a strict authoritarian system together with a fully market economy, albeit one with strong government oversight. This is the source of its strangely divided political personality: On one level, there are the low-browed KGB types with the full range of paranoias, and on the other there are the high-minded liberal (that word should probably be in scare quotes) economists with their faith in orthodox monetarism.

Putin won’t let these two parties devour one another, but both sides maintain the illusion that doing so is possible in principle. The problem is that maintaining such an artificial political-economic division for long is unlikely considering Russia’s cultural and political traditions. That is why while aiming for South Korea, the Kremlin might wind up re-creating North Korea.

Rage: Caught In Self-Deception

One of the most surprising features of Russian political culture is the ability of the elite to induce a state of self-hypnosis. Things that are done in order to deceive others usually become a source of self-deception. Anti-Americanism was reintroduced as a political tool but, before our eyes, it has transformed into an end in itself.

It brought together many trends into one place which ended up creating a powerful cumulative effect. First, the good old Soviet anti-Americanism that some still politically active generations feel has not been completely exhausted. It settled deep in the subconscious, and all that was needed was to light a match to once again get this guiding star of Soviet propaganda blazing.

Second, a sort of Versailles Syndrome has kicked in, and our imperial nostalgia has been like a bucket of gasoline thrown into a furnace.

So it didn’t take the Kremlin long to turn the boat around -- it easily turned by itself. Millions of people sighed with relief when they discovered such a simple and clear explanation for everything. And they aren’t bothered by the fact that their worldview contains an irreconcilable contradiction: America is simultaneously dying and enslaving the world. It is both the world’s only superpower and a geopolitical lame duck.

Conspiracy theories are popping up like mushrooms after the rain -- there has been no crime, no conflict, no stupidity or base deed that was not planned in advance by the Americans. People have entered into a rage -- an all-revealing, universal rage -- and escaping from it now will not be easy.

Jitters: Fear Makes The Music Play Faster

But we have had plenty of caprice and rage for a long time now -- at least since the suppression of the “Bolotnaya uprising” and the annexation of Crimea. But such a level of hysteria as we have seen in the last month is something new. Something else has been added that was missing before -- jitters.

The rulers’ subconscious is gradually being consumed by the fear that the economic crisis may be a much greater trial for the system than they are admitting on television. By all appearances, the experts were a little hasty in their conclusions about the sanctions, assuming that Russia could endure them without substantial harm. Of course, as a short-term tool of influencing the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine, the sanctions have not been very effective. But in the long term, it seems they are working, exercising a slow, strangling effect on the Russian economy.

I would suggest that this is partly connected with that fact that the Russian economy isn’t really as resource-based as is usually assumed. It is more speculation-based. The speculative capital and loans that the Kremlin is so fond of criticizing played an essential role in maintaining stability. Russia, in a sense, is a giant financial pyramid like MMM, one that encompasses one-seventh of the Earth’s landmass. That is why being cut off from financial markets has been so painful for Russia. It is leading to economic asphyxiation. For a certain time, of course, it is possible to breathe from the tank of hard-currency oxygen, but that can’t last forever.

If there is any place in Russia where the significance of the Western sanctions is accurately assessed, it is in the Kremlin, where all information from open and secret sources comes together. The sanctions, evidently, worry the Kremlin much more than it states publicly. And that is the new leitmotif in the American symphony that was missing before.

Vicious Circle

Beginning in the winter of 2014, when Russia experienced a counterrevolution, its domestic and foreign policies have taken on a strictly cyclical character.

The threat of political destabilization (primarily because of the worsening economic crisis) is accompanied by a sharp increase in the “mobilization policy” and the diversion of internal energy outward (Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, and, now, the United States). Bolstering the mobilization policy will inevitably result in an escalation of aggression and a more intense confrontation with the West. And the result of confrontation with the West will be more and more sanctions. Sanctions will produce even more difficulties for the economy and the need for a bigger dose of mobilization adrenaline, which will lead to new escalations and new sanctions and yet another cycle.

The Kremlin is spinning inside this circle like a hamster on a wheel, its feet barely keeping up. Of course, during the long summer of high global energy prices the hamster managed to stock up on a lot of hard-currency fat, but winter is now around the corner and its little heart just might not stand the strain. Realizing that this is a dead end, the Kremlin is looking for a way to break out.

It doesn’t want to be a hamster, but a wolf. And like an experienced predator, it is preparing to cross all red lines. Or to create the impression it is ready to cross all red lines. That is the point of the new blackmail -- to force the West to back down first and in one way or another to weaken the sanctions in order to let the regime die a natural death.

The times when Russia’s foreign policy was a continuation of its domestic policy have passed. Now, it is the opposite. Life in Russia is subordinated to the realization of its new global foreign-policy goals -- frightening the West and forcing it to back down, to lift the sanctions, and to restore the regime’s access to capital markets.

There is a relatively simple explanation for this. All active threats to the regime from inside the country have been sidelined. If the political and economic status quo could be maintained, the regime could continue itself indefinitely, with a living President Vladimir Putin or without. But today the maintenance of the status quo is in the hands of the West (mostly, the United States). If it can endure this psychological attack and keep up the pressure -- including the sanctions -- today’s Russia will inevitably follow the path of the Soviet Union. But if they become frightened and take their boot off Russia’s neck, then the end game could be put off for decades.

It is no surprise that the Kremlin is following the U.S presidential election campaign closely. Whoever becomes the next U.S. president will have in their hands the life or death of the Russian regime.

Vladimir Pastukhov is a political scientist and a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. This commentary, which does not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL, was originally published in Russian by