The Past is Present

January 16, 2009 Topic: Security Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: Racism

The Past is Present

Russian popular and elite opinion is becoming more hostile to the United States. It could lead to a renewed cold war—or worse.


A plain extrapolation of recent political developments in Russia into the future should lead one to regard outright war with NATO as an improbable, yet possible, scenario. It is not unlikely that Russian public discourse will, during the coming years, continue to become more hostile to and paranoid about the United States, moving in that direction at the same speed at which it has been moving since 2000. What is in this case in store for the world is not only a new cold war, but also the prospect of a hot and perhaps even nuclear war.

This assessment sounds both apocalyptic and also "unmodern," if not anachronistic. Aren't the real challenges of the twenty-first century issues like global warming, financial regulation, the North-South divide and international migration? Isn't that enough to worry about, and should we distract ourselves from solving these real problems? Hasn't the age of the East-West confrontation been over for several years now? Do we really want to go back to the nightmarish visions of the horrible twentieth century? A sober look at Russia advises that we better proceed carefully. Doing so may decrease the probability that a worst-case scenario ever materializes.


This is especially true because such a scenario has become feasible again. Russian public opinion and elite discourse have made a fundamental shift during the last few years-until August 2008, a shift largely unnoticed in the West. The 1990s began with Russia's enthusiastic embrace of the Western value system and partnership; they ended with Russian skepticism and bitterness toward the West. This was less the result of NATO's expansion or the bombing of Yugoslavia per se than an outcome of Moscow's peculiar interpretation of these actions. In the early 1990s, Yeltsin had failed to remove many of the Soviet Union's elites from their positions of power and influence. This gave the ancien régime's representatives an opportunity to infuse post-Soviet political discourse with a reformulated, yet again fundamentally dualistic worldview in which Russia and the United States remained archenemies fighting not only for control of the former Russian empire but also deciding the future fate of humanity.

Marginal interpretations like these were already making inroads into Russian mainstream discourse in the 1990s. With the beginning of Vladimir Putin's rise in 1999, however, they started to slowly, but steadily, move to the fore.

So, even before the Russian-Georgian war, Russians' views of the United States were deteriorating continuously. Today, the idea that Western (or, at least, Anglo-Saxon) political leaders are deeply russophobic is commonplace in Russia. Whereas in a poll conducted by Russia's leading sociological survey agency, the Levada Center, in July 2000, 69 percent of the respondents said that they had a "very good" or "mainly good" opinion of the United States, by July 2008 this number shrank to 43 percent. In the same period, the number of those with a negative or very negative view of the United States rose from 23 percent to 46 percent. Asked by the Levada Center what they saw as the major reason for the Russian-Georgian conflict, 48 percent of the respondents in mid-August 2008 chose the answer "The U.S. leadership wants to extend its influence on Russia's neighboring states." To the question why leading politicians of the West support Georgia, 66 percent replied that it is because "Western politicians want to weaken Russia and push her out of the Caucasus." In another poll in September 2008, 52 percent of the Russian respondents who knew the phrase "cold war," agreed that it was continuing while only 18 percent of them chose the answer "The cold war is over."

Such collective paranoia is not only regrettable, but also dangerous. Russia is beholden to these views and still has a weapons arsenal large enough to erase humanity several times over.

Until August 2008, it appeared that Dmitri Medvedev's rise might have ushered in a new and more positive stage in Russian-Western relations-a chance for a thaw that, after the Russian-Georgian war and the disciplining effect it had on the new president, has become slim again. Today, there is little grounds for hoping that the deep contamination of Russian public discourse could be reversed, or, at least, its further evolution be stopped, in the near future. The last major European country infected by a conspiratorial worldview, Germany, had to be defeated by an international coalition in a world war, and its population had to be thoroughly reeducated, before it returned to the community of advanced states as a fully respected member.

Moreover, in Russia, the West's reputation has suffered from the various international escapades of the Bush administration and Blair cabinet. Reminiscent of the Triple Entente's misguided behavior toward Germany after World War I, the West has-through its usual arrogance as well as simple inattention-regularly ignored legitimate Russian interests in the former Soviet Union. In Georgia and Ukraine, the West has not commented on the undemocratic policies of these states that infringe on the interests of national minorities, especially ethnic Russians. The EU is also complicit, having admitted the Baltic ethnocracies that have, to one degree or another, made their Russian-speaking populations hostages to former-Soviet policies, and that deny these large minorities elementary political rights on the basis of dubious ethnocentric arguments long discredited in Western Europe.

As there is little prospect that the West will develop the strength or even willingness to correct these and similar inconsistencies in its international behavior, Moscow will find it easy to further demonize Western elites. These elites, in turn, will face a difficult choice when it comes to following up on their promise to Georgia and Ukraine that they shall join NATO-an organization seen as fundamentally anti-Russian by both Moscow's intellectuals and the Russian common man. Unless something fundamentally changes in Russian-Western relations, we will-as the Russian-Georgian war illustrated-continue to live on the brink of an armed confrontation between two nuclear superpowers.


Andreas Umland is an assistant professor at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt. He is also the editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society and coeditor of the Russian web-journal "Forum for the Contemporary History and Culture of Eastern Europe."