Putin’s Centrality in Russian politics and the myth about the American Guilt
The world is currently witnessing the growing deterioration of Russian-American relations. Provocative deeds by Russian military forces against the members of NATO are particularly ominous, and talks about a new cold war or even WWIII have become almost normal in the Russian and international media.
Let us imagine a scenario from Stanley Cramer’s movie On the beach (1956)—that few people survive a nuclear holocaust in 2018, the final consequence of an accidental confrontation between Russian and NATO fighters in Estonian airspace. They are trying to understand the events ultimately accountable for the end of civilization. Among the multitude of theories, two happen to be the most popular. One focuses on Putin’s centrality in Russian politics which, while following the logical course of events, allowed him to unintentionally sacrifice the world in his attempt to keep his personal power. Another sees the policies of Washington as the crucial cause of the tragic developments, in that their refusal to recognize Russian national interests helped to maintain and strengthen anti-Americanism in the Russian elite and masses. This anti-Americanism pushed Putin and his circle to actively confront America and its allies, which finally led to a chain of events culminating in the resumption of the cold war, the arms race, and, ultimately, the application of nuclear weapons. If I happened to be, by the will of Providence, in the small crowd of survivors after World War III, I would vehemently argue against the anti-Americanist theory, which puts the blame for the destruction of civilization on the foreign policy makers in Washington and whatever mistakes they had made. I would argue instead that it was Putin’s yearning for power that led to the end of the world. This would be the final argument of those who insisted on the crucial role played by single individuals in history against those who offered the so-called “structural” explanations, and who believed in the leading role of mass “objective” processes. It would be a sad defeat of those American and European analysts who, while watching the world slide into disaster, underestimated the role of Putin’s personality and, with masochistic passion, ascribed guilt to the West, especially the USA. In some ways, one of the causes of the catastrophe would actually be the victory of Putin’s propaganda, which has not only conquered Russian minds but also those of many Western experts.
The birth of anti-Americanism as a vision of the world
Since the middle 2000s, Moscow has deftly and persistently created two myths: one about America’s guilt with regards to Russia, and a second one about the deep, spontaneous anti-Americanism of the Russian people. We even know exactly when the Kremlin started building both of the myths—in 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the first Orange revolution in Ukraine, which scared Putin immensely because he saw the writing on the wall for the first time since his ascension to power, warning him of the possibility losing that power. The notorious Munich speech in 2007 revealed that Putin believed the West, and the USA in particular, was behind this revolution. From that moment on, this view has directed his foreign and domestic policies. Since that time, anti-Americanism has become the core of the Kremlin’s official ideology, and the key to explaining any negative developments that might be dangerous to either Putin’s rule in Russia or his standing in the world. Only the “class struggle” theory dominant in Soviet ideology was used as widely to explain everything as anti-Americanism is used in Putin’s Russia.
The myth about America’s guilt has conquered the minds of not only 80 percent of the Russian population, but also of many American politicians and analysts. It is reasonable to keep in mind that many American intellectuals—mostly those from the liberal camp, who are often inclined to take an excessive self-critical, almost masochistic position on many foreign and domestic issues—also believed in the myth that the cold war was initiated by the USA but not by Stalin . Another dubious achievement of the American intellectual community was the praise they bestowed in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the Chinese Great Cultural Revolution, saying that was a great achievement by Mao in his fight against bureaucratization and inequality.
Let us deconstruct anti-Americanism as it has bloomed in Russia. It consists of a few components. The custodians of the anti-American myth are concerned that all of these components be represented in the media on an everyday basis in order to maintain their impact on the Russians.
Component number one: The USA destroyed the USSR and wants to disintegrate the Russian Federation
According to this myth, throughout Russia’s thousand-year history, the West has always intended to do as Putin said in November 2014—destroy the Russian state to acquire the country’s natural resources, and isolate Russia from the rest of the world. Putin’s ideologues do not miss an opportunity to suggest, directly, or more often, indirectly, the existence of the some “Western center” (or “they,” or “elites” as Putin’s media refer to anonymous Western politicians), now under the direction of the USA, which is continuing this devilish work against Russia. Putin has stretched this view to absurdity, declaring in that November 2014 speech that “America wants not so much to humiliate us but to subordinate us.” As I have seen in my recent personal communications, even the most educated and respected Russian intellectuals share this postulate of Putin’s propaganda.
The Orthodox Church has added a religious dimension to this plot—not only are Russia and its civilization the target of the Western evil-doers but so is the Russian church; the soul of the Russian people will supposedly be annihilated. It looks as though Putin’s political technologists are using the anti-Semitic myth about the plot by the Elders of Zion to conquer the world, but are replacing “the Jews” with “the USA” and “the West,” and “conquer the world” with “conquer Russia.”
The important part of this myth—which is especially dear to Putin—is the idea that the Russian president became the target of Western critique because he saved Russia from the disintegration that was almost inevitable by the end of the 90s. Putin intentionally linked his personal political survival to the survival of Russia as an independent country. A clear sign of his serious concerns about his personal future was clearly manifested by his close aide Viacheslav Volodin who, at the 11th annual Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi in October 2014, declared that «there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.» He added that «any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia.» Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, continued to develop this idea at the end of November 2014. The Kremlin now says that Western sanctions do not aim to change Moscow policy (as it relates to Ukraine, for instance) but to see a change in the regime, which evidently means removing Putin from power.
The anti-American myth has successfully suggested to most Russians that all organizations receiving material help from the West are agents of the USA, whose true goal is the destruction of Putin’s regime. Even such seemingly innocent projects as the adoption of orphans by Americans, or inviting children to spend time with American families serve the same purpose. In the November interview with a Russian journalist, Putin emphatically repeated his readiness to label everybody as an American agent if he or she receives material help from abroad.
The USA, of course, pursues its own interests in the world, which supposedly conflict with various countries on various issues. There is no doubt that the American government has made several mistakes in foreign policy, particularly when Washington has tried to expand democratic order in foreign countries. There are, no doubt, conflicts of interest between the USA and Russia, too, but the USA has never planned the destruction of the Russian state. Concern about the fate of nuclear weapons has always prevailed in the minds of the American elite (let us remember the famous “Chicken Kiev ” speech of President Bush SR. in August 1991, in which he beseeched Ukrainians to stay inside the USSR) , as opposed to any thoughts about creating anarchy in the vast territory of the Russian Federation.
There is one somewhat dissonant note in the myth of Russia as an eternal victim of the West. It comes from another postulate being advanced jointly by the Kremlin’s and the Russian Orthodox church’s propaganda: the moral decline of the West, and Russia’s mission to save the world with its strong Christian values, This, of course, makes it impossible to support, among other things, same-sex marriage—an issue that is almost central in denouncing Western depravity. However, a postulate about the moral decay of the West plays a subordinate role in Russian ideological construction, even if its importance should not be underestimated. It engenders a positive response from conservative forces both inside and outside Russia.
Component two: The whole world is being used by the USA against Russia
The idea of America being devoted to the goal of Russia’s destruction is complemented by another of Moscow propagandists’ obsessions—that no European country, especially the countries neighboring Russia, particularly the former Soviet republics, are sovereign states with their own national interests and their own specific internal problems. Everything about these countries that has displeased Moscow was arranged and directed by the Washington “obkom” (the regional party committee in the USSR), or at least by Brussels. This is particularly true of the democratic movements in the former Soviet republics, which Putin treats as a personal threat, and whose American roots are one of the most unshakable parts of the anti-American mythology. This seems to be a deep conviction for Putin. Leaders, as we know, often believe their own myths.
Removing the idea of their neighbors’ sovereignty from the minds of the Russian people has helped Putin to use the expansion of NATO to the East as his most important evidence of the USA’s ominous intentions toward Russia. Those who live in Putin’s reality cannot accept that the main factor in this process has been the Russian neighbors’ desire for protection against an eventual Russian aggression, the justification for which was found much faster than these countries expected when they were initially imploring NATO to accept them. Russian TV will not permit anybody to remind the Russians of the bitter history of their relationships with the Baltic republics or Poland, whereas the people of these countries have certainly not forgotten. There is no doubt that the expansion of NATO would be impossible without the support of the American and European governments, but all of these governments quite shrewdly saw, even a few years before the Ukrainian events of 2004 and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, that this was the remedy to an eventual Russian aggression. In no way did the Western powers see these actions as a threat to the integrity of Russia. Denying the new democracies an opportunity to join NATO only to deprive Moscow of a propaganda argument against the West—which was suggested by several Western politicians fighting a non-existing triumphalism in American policy that looks ridiculous in Obama’s time when with the “reset” policy many attempts to soften Russian arrogance were made —would be unreasonable for many reasons, even without the Georgian and Ukrainian experiences.
The Kremlin itself has seemingly ignored the fact that its invasion of Ukraine helped to rejuvenate NATO much more successfully than the increase of NATO’s military potential through the addition of the army of Estonia, or even Romania or Bulgaria.
It would be too costly for NATO to abandon plans to build up the anti-missile installation in East Europe for the sake of weakening Russia’s anti-American propaganda based on the idea of America’s intention to destroy Russia. In fact, the American promise to delay some actions in building the PRO did not change Russia’s anti-American propaganda one bit.
Component Three: The disrespect
While the accusations that the USA harbors intentions of disintegrating Russia and grabbing its natural resources are baseless, they are still are in the realm of possible debate. Other components of the anti-American mythology are utterly irrational. The Kremlin’s obsession with the USA and other foreign countries disrespecting Russia, which has been inculcated successfully into Russian minds by Putin’s propaganda, assumes that everybody in the world should love Russia and honor it. Typically, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky are mentioned as the first argument. Meanwhile, as the Russian media asserts, the USA does not respect the Russian nation, its culture, its state, its leaders, or its ordinary people. This disrespect is revealed, for instance, in the Americans’ desire to give advice to Russian politicians and managers on how to build a democratic and market-based society. The arrival of economists from Harvard and the International Bank in the 1990s, by invitation of the Russian government no less, wounded Russia’s honor forever. Using the logic of this accusation, anybody who dispenses advice, whether reasonable or stupid, does not respect those to whom the advice is directed. It was Putin himself who introduced this element of anti-Americanism, when he expressed anger toward Western teachers of democracy in his Munich speech. He went even further in the November interview, saying that today’s Russian political order is “much more liberal” than America’s. In other words, in Putin’s proposed reality Russians should consider any foreign critique of the regime— political or economic—as disrespectful of Russia.
Component Four: Ingratitude and betrayal
Another component of anti-Americanism looks no less ridiculous than the previous one. America is accused of ingratitude, and even betraying Russia. It is being espoused that Russia has made several concessions to the USA in the past, such as abandoning military bases in foreign countries or cooperating with Americans in the war in Afghanistan, as if these actions were not done in Russia’s self-interest. The Russian media has even talked about “the betrayal,” though they have difficulty explaining the specifics of how America could have “betrayed Russia”.
The myth about the popularity of anti-Americanism in Russia
Along with the myth of “the American guilt before Russia,” another one about the deep anti-Americanism of the Russian people and their expected reactions to American policies toward Russia plays an important role in Putin’s propaganda, as well as in Western critiques of Washington.
The Kremlin actually regulates most of the hatred toward America and the West. Inside the public mind of any country’s people, one can find the elements of various traditions, often opposite in character to that which the political power is currently using as the means of persuasion and coercion to stimulate or restrain. Anti-Semitism in Russia is a good example. From the early 1930s, Stalin and his heirs encouraged anti-Semitism, and made it a leading social issue in the country. Later, Yeltsin and Putin both rejected it as a fundamental state policy, which brought about a drastic decrease in anti-Semitism in the country. The same thing happened in Ukraine after the Orange revolution and Maydan, even though Ukraine was a hotbed of anti-Semitism for centuries, and the most anti-Semitic part of the USSR.
Anti-Americanism declined considerably in Russia in 1990, and was probably lower than in many other countries in the world. Even in the early 2000s, the level of anti-Americanism in the country was quite low simply because, during this time, Putin was flirting with the USA, and cooperating with Washington in Afghanistan and other places.
The more recent outburst of anti-Americanism has to be directly ascribed to the Orange revolution in Kiev and Tbilisi. Putin’s intellectual staff has transformed anti-Americanism into the core of its official ideology, adding to it the fierce and devious media attacks against Ukraine and its people, even if the level of anti-Ukrainian feelings was close to zero only a few years before. It would only take a few weeks, perhaps even days, to drastically decrease anti-American feelings in the country if Putin and his people were to make favorable statements about America and allow pro-American programs on TV.
Putin’s determination to stay in power forever as the major factor in his foreign and domestic policies
Unlike the Chinese Communists who, after Mao, elaborated on the rules to allow a smooth transfer of power from the old leader to a new one, the transition of power became a problem that Russia, after the demise of the monarchy in 1917, could not solve. Putin, who was himself chosen as heir to Yeltsin through non-democratic procedures, has been obsessed with finding ways to stay in power indefinitely since his first days in the Kremlin. The accumulated records of his deeds with a criminal dimension have could been a factor in his desire to stay in power as long as possible; by the end of his first term, Putin had to contemplate the probability that he might, at best, finish his days in a European or Russian prison. Yeltsin had the same fear. Putin was chosen to be the heir because he was the most reliable person among the candidates; the one who was least likely to permit Yeltsin to be sued in court. Indeed, Putin’s first edict as president was to declare immunity against any criminal investigation for Yeltsin and his family. Whether Putin will be as lucky in choosing his heir is a question without answer. In any case, it is not that amazing that the murder of Khadafy or Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev would have impressed Putin so much. The idea that Putin has backed himself into a corner through many of his actions has now become conventional wisdom for many liberal analysts in Russia. In that same November interview, Putin rejected the idea to declare him the Russian monarch but not very convincingly. He promised to observe the Constitution and to stay in power no more than two new terms. With his record of lying, however, nobody took this promise seriously.
In 2011, Putin had not yet discarded the idea that cooperation with the West could help him to stay in power longer. With this belief, Putin organized the Olympic Games in Sochi—he spent an enormous amount of money and his own personal time, sending the message to the world that Russia is a part of Western civilization. However, the developments in Kiev in November 2011, beginning with the ouster of president Yanukovich, and the actions arranged by the West have, in Moscow’s view, radically changed his view. The days after the victory of the Second Maydan were crucial to Putin’s biography. Since then, Putin has gone into direct confrontation with the USA and the West, assuming that it will help him to strengthen the anti-American ideology, and continue presenting him as the savior of Russia, two essential parts of his political capital. This is the basis of his legitimization, and of his hope to stay safe in the Kremlin for a long time to come. With the total lack of opposition or political institutions that can even mildly restrain him, and with the masses easily ignited with a hatred of America, neither Putin nor most analysts (with the exception of wishful thinkers) see any serious threat to his control of the country. Of course, he has assumed that, with the help of a huge and well-paid repressive apparatus, the various economic adversities which could happen in the future will be overcome.
The view that Russia’s aggressiveness is a reaction to flawed American policies toward it is deeply wrong. It is also wrong to believe that American foreign policy accounts for the growth in anti-Americanism among ordinary Russians whose views supposedly reflect Putin. In fact, it is Putin’s determination to stay in power indefinitely that explains both Russian aggression with respect to Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and the high level of anti-Americanism found within the country. Putin chose confrontation with the West and a break with many elements of Western civilization as a way of creating a national ideology based predominantly on hatred of America, as well as a way of eliminating the remnants of the opposition in the country, and guaranteeing he stays in power for the next decade or two. All of Putin’s decisions on the economy or in foreign politics are submissive to this goal.
The current developments in Russia are an interesting contribution to the centuries old debate about the role that both leaders and the masses play in history. In today’s parlance, the debate revolves around the relative role of agents and structures in the functioning of society and in the historical process. There are cases when structures—political and social institutions, social and economic relations, and traditions in the mentality of the people—allow those who control the buttons of power to not only choose the direction of the developments and stay in power for a very long time, but even to implement their personal whims.
Such is the case with Putin. He presents a high level of danger to his country and to the whole world. So far, neither the Russian who understands the ominous impact of Putin’s staying in power to Russian long-term interests, nor Western politicians restrained by fear of a nuclear war—and Putin has the possibility of launching one—can do anything to remove this dangerous person from the buttons of power. The danger of Putin’s unpredictable actions clearly increased in November, following the meeting of the G-20 in Australia, which demonstrated the big gap between Putin and the world. His foreign minister crossed a line when he declared that his boss is the object of the world’s hatred, and that the world dreams of his being replaced as the head of Russia. Since there is no doubt that this confession was endorsed by Putin, it means that both actors—the Russian president and the Western world—are now involved in a deep confrontation, and have no common ground for solving their differences. Psychologically, there are few examples in the history of the contemporary world of a similar public adversity between the leaders of two camps able to destroy each other; only Hitler and the leaders of the anti-Nazi alliance after 1941 come to mind. The choice of strategy and tactics in dealing with such a power-hungry and narcissistic person demand that Western politicians consult with various experts, including psychiatrists. It is remarkable that during the interview with the Russian journalist on November 14, there was a question about the President’s health, and Putin himself acknowledged that society was concerned about his “bodily and psychic status,” He assured his interviewer that “everything is fine.” In any case, while questions about “psychic status” were raised with respect to Hitler, it was never raised about any Russian leader in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Putin is a leader who will bring a lot of trouble to Western politicians in the near future, with his deep hatred of the West, and especially the USA.