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Russia revives Cold War

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If America did not exist, Russia would have to invent it. In a sense it already has, first as a dream and then as a nightmare. No other country looms so large in the Russian psyche. To Kremlin ideologists, the very concept of Russia's sovereignty depends on being free of America's influence.

Anti-Americanism has long been a staple of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it has undergone an important shift. Gone are the days when the Kremlin craved recognition and lashed out at the West for not recognizing Russia as one of its own. Now it neither pretends nor aspires to be like the West. Instead, it wants to exorcise all traces of American influence.

Four years after the American "reset," the relationship is being "reformatted" to rid Russia of dependence on America, says Alexei Pushkov, the pugnacious chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign relations committee. The Russians have shut off all co-operation that uses American money, including on health care, civil society, fighting human trafficking and drugs and dismantling weapons of mass destruction.

All this, according to Pushkov, ends an era when Russia looked to the West as a model. Some Russian deputies have even suggested fining cinemas that show too many foreign films, or banning foreign words. A new law makes it treasonous to provide consultancy or "other assistance" to a foreign state directed against Russia's national security.

"The government's policies are driving Russia into isolation," a Western diplomat says.

Anti-Americanism used to be a postmodernist game played by an elite that had made itself comfortable in the West. Now the game seems to have become real.

For instance, the Kremlin has banned American couples from adopting Russian orphans, depriving many children with severe disabilities of the chance of a decent life. This was Russia's first response to America's Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer driven to an early death in a Russian prison by the people whom he accused of fraud. The act threatens sanctions against Russian officials directly involved in human rights abuses.

Russia's second response was a law Putin introduced that prohibits Russian officials or their immediate family members from holding foreign bank accounts or foreign assets, because such things pose a threat to national security.

These moves are a response less to American actions than to Russia's domestic situation. Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says that, almost for the first time, Russian politics have hijacked bilateral relations.

The trigger for the new anti-Americanism was the street protests against the Duma election in December 2011, which the Kremlin blamed on America. Falling popular trust in the Kremlin, worries about capital flight and the economy, and an antagonistic urban middle class have led Putin to resort to nationalism, traditionalism and selective repression. Unable to stoke ethnic nationalism for fear of igniting the northern Caucasus again, he instead has taken aim at the West and Western values.

His traditionalist rhetoric conveniently eliminates the need for new ideas or modernization, a word that has vanished from the official vocabulary along with former president Dmitry Medvedev, a modernizer who is now the low-profile prime minister. It appeals to Russian history, particularly the Second World War, and to the Orthodox Church.

Recently, the Kremlin used the 70th anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad to justify Russia's isolationism. As Pushkov tweeted, "Stalingrad was not only a breaking point in the war, but also in the centuries-long battle between the West and Russia. Hitler was the last conqueror who came from the West."

A few years ago, such comments came only from right-wing nationalists. Now they belong to the mainstream. Russia used to argue that its competition with America was driven by interests. Now it says its confrontation with America is about values.

Maksim Shevchenko, a television journalist and a Kremlin-approved crusader against liberalism, wrote recently that "Russia and the West are at war... There is a growing feeling that most western people belong to a different humanoid group from us, that we are only superficially similar, but fundamentally different."

Political analyst Kirill Rogov says the Kremlin has imposed its traditionalist agenda on Russian society by prosecuting Pussy Riot, the punk singers who performed obscenely on the altar of Russia's main cathedral, by banning the promotion of homosexuality and by blocking the American adoptions. This has allowed the Kremlin to present protesters against Putin not only as foreign agents, but also as a bunch of homosexual, blasphemous mercenaries ready to sell their children to the evil empire.

It has not boosted Putin's popularity, however, nor restored trust in his presidency. Indeed, the number of Russians seeing America as a friend, not a foe, has risen in the past year, according to a Levada opinion poll.

One explanation for this might be growing mistrust of the Kremlin. That is what made Soviet propaganda ineffective 20 years ago. Russian society also seems to have limited enthusiasm for the growing political role of the church.

Russia's obsession with America is countered by a broad indifference on the American side. The "reset" policy, which has helped bring about some American wishes, including a transport corridor to Afghanistan and co-operation on Iran, has now been exhausted.

"There are no big deals to be had with Putin," Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of the Washington-based Brookings Institution argued recently in the New York Times.

Pushkov retorts that America has not understood how important Russia is for its security.

The irony is the Kremlin's anti-Americanism reveals not its independence from America but rather its reliance on America as an enemy. The real casualty may be Russia itself.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2013 A11

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