What's behind efforts to poison American public opinion towards Russia?

As the pressure on President Obama grows inside the Administration, he may be forced to change his Russia policy. Photo: White House/Pete Spuza

Samuel Johnson was once known to remark that 'intentions must be gathered from acts.' With that in mind it might be worth our time to examine the raft of commentary occasioned by the Sochi Games that is currently emanating from prominent American neoconservatives.

Not a week into the Olympics, in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine, a long time foreign affairs analyst confidently predicted:

Putinism is bound to fail; it is, as widely noted, already failing. Twenty-five years ago the United States had the good sense to help the Soviet empire fall as gently as possible. Some time, perhaps not long from now, the United States will have to engage in the same act of deft diplomacy. It won't be satisfying; it will be necessary.

An American neoconservative and LGBT activist took to the pages of London’s Spectator to proclaim:

…as bad as things have become for gay people in Russia, they are hardly the most downtrodden group in that benighted land. In October, a Moscow mob perpetrated what can only be described as a good old-fashioned Russian pogrom against migrant workers, calling for a Motherland cleansed of Central Asians and people from the Caucuses. Racial hatred is hardly new to Russia, of course, and in recent years Putin and his cronies have cynically fuelled it.

The same writer, at the end of a lengthy screed in The Daily Beast, noted that Putin’s Russia is ‘a brutal society marked by violent nationalism, social breakdown, domestic authoritarianism, and foreign aggression.’

This sort of stuff – invective passing for analysis – continues unabated into the second week of the Games. In the pages of the once-respected National Review, an editor-at-large wrote a column expressing – in the sort of faux outrage that has become the dominant tone of the media’s coverage of Putin’s Russia – bewilderment at the fact that the Opening Ceremony wasn’t dedicated to an extended examination of Stalin’s crimes and the horrors of the Gulag and Holodomor.

A distinguished American Professor of Foreign Affairs took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to assure readers that, though it may appear that Mr. Putin’s Games are succeeding, never fear:

The Russian president's biggest problem is simple: Post-Soviet Russia is a weak state. Take away its gas and oil resources, nuclear arsenal and Cold War-era intelligence networks, and there is not much of a there there.

Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that Putin’s ultimate goal is to ‘reconstruct the Soviet empire in a post-communist world.’

What is the intention of these writers? Ostensibly it is to poison US public sentiment and elite opinion against any attempt by the Obama administration to construct a viable working relationship with Russia. Their efforts have largely succeeded.

Consider the results of a recent Gallup poll, released on February 13. It shows American public opinion towards Russia is at its most negative in two decades. The unfavorable ratings of Putin and Russia have hit new highs of 63% and 60%, respectively.

The effort to poison American public opinion towards Russia has – in reality – very little to do with Putin or his domestic policies. In fact – as was trenchantly noted in Forbes recently, Putin's domestic turn rightward dovetails nicely with the American religious and neoconservative Right’s own domestic proclivities.

But I would contend that what all the criticism toward Russia really amounts to is an extended display of pique at the Russian government for having the temerity to stand in the way of American military action against Syria.

As we have seen in just the past few days, the Obama administration is now revisiting its options with regard to Syria. This coincides with renewed calls for action; just this week in the pages of the Washington Post, George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter pleaded for the administration to put aside negotiations in favor of a military strike against Assad, while Bush’s UN Ambassador took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times writing:

Obama argued for three years that Russia shared his objective of a peaceful transition from the Assad regime in Syria to something else. This was never true. Moscow's support for Assad (as well as Iran's, directly and through Hezbollah) guaranteed he would only depart feet first.

As all of the aforementioned writers have long recognized, if a strike is to take place it will necessarily be done in the absence of authorization from the UN Security Council. Therefore, they have collectively spilt a not inconsiderable amount of ink denigrating Putin, Russia, and the Sochi Games. Hence the following post from The American Interest online: Syria and Ukraine – Is Obama Waking Up? After citing a New York Times story indicating a possible change in direction in administration policy on Syria, the writer expresses hope that:

…at some point President Obama decides to change course. It seems clear that the strong pressure inside the Administration against the President’s chosen policy mix continues and has gained force as it becomes less and less possible to pretend that the “partnership with Russia” is anything but a sham.

It’s clear that what really has been bothering this influential segment of American opinion all along has been Russia’s refusal to help oust Assad by use of force. And the downturn in American public opinion towards Russia serves their purposes; denigration of Russia helps to devalue the authority of its UN veto, thereby rendering meaningless in the eyes of the American public and thus easing Obama’s path to military action against the Assad regime.

And that, I would submit, has been their intention all along.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.