There’s something about Russia’s attempts to establish a strong national identity in the post-Cold War era that clashes with America’s perceptions of its unique role in the world.

The satirical figures of Vladimir Putin (R) and Barack Obama are displayed ahead of the annual San Juan (Saint John) celebrations in Spain's Alicante on June 23, 2014.Photo: AFP

It now seems as if the two former Cold War adversaries – the U.S. and Russia – have been on a path to confrontation ever since the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Observers in both Russia and the U.S. warn of a new Cold War and caution about the danger of its escalation into a military conflict.

The extreme level of anti-Russian sentiment in American media in connection to the civil war in Ukraine is surprising even to seasoned analysts of media campaigns against Russia under President George W. Bush. At the time, it was common to accuse Russia and Putin personally of murdering independent journalists and spy defectors without basing the accusations on anything but suppositions. Today, no other logic is expected of the mainstream media, while the charges involve hundreds of innocent civilians.

It is not enough to explain this level of hostility in American media by the Kremlin’s more aggressive stance both domestically and internationally. Such an approach would highlight only one side of the relationship by caricaturing the complex bilateral dynamics, in which one side is dependent on the other and defines itself through it.

In search of the dark double

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States defined itself through the Soviet “other.” American officials saw their country’s values as incomparably superior to those of the USSR and its interests as incomparably more legitimate than Soviet ones. The comparison was both a method of gaining knowledge and the essence of establishing the identity of the U.S. and the U.S.-led “free world” relative to that of the Soviet Union.

America was the land of freedom and law, whereas the Soviet state was the quintessentially oppressive, evil empire that sought to dominate neighbors through force. The United States therefore continued the European tradition of viewing Russia as the mirror image of the West. Such a perception has shaped minds of Europeans ever since Russia emerged as an independent power.

As the historian David Foglesong wrote, ever since the late 19th century, influential circles in the United States have viewed Russia as their “dark double” – disrespectful of religious freedoms and property rights. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the Cold War in the 20th century served to strengthen such perceptions of Russia in the West.

Russia’s post-Cold War inferiority complex

After the Cold War, as Russia was going through a painful transition from communism, U.S. elites were failing the test of inventing a new national identity free of negative comparisons with the former enemy. For a short period of time, it seemed that the American power would rebuild its relations with a new Russia and the two nations would re-define themselves as partners jointly facing threats of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and regional instability.

However, as the Kremlin has pointed out, the United States continued to view Russia as a potential threat and insisted on reshaping the world in the American image by promoting neo-liberal economic policies and NATO-centered security institutions in Europe and Eurasia.

The post-Cold War imbalance of power served to exacerbate the problem. The triumphant United States emerged as the world’s superpower, a fact that might have removed some of the older constraints for acting on perceived fears of Russia. The West’s promotion of its favored economic and security policies assumed that Russia would eventually accept them.

Yet, instead of accepting the status of a dependent partner, Russia soon began to revive its identity as a great power and a strong state with distinct national interests. To many Westerners, this refusal to follow the West’s lead seemed irrational, especially given that Russia lost one-sixth of its territory, its economy shrank by some 50 percent, and its undermined capabilities were insufficient to address growing disorder, corruption, and poverty that had resulted from the Soviet breakup.

But Russians have historically viewed being a great power and a strong state as necessities of survival, not a luxury. As painful as it was, Russia completed the transition from communism by rebuilding, not abandoning, traditional perceptions and institutions. Although it is not a Communist-style or Tsarist-style autocracy, the new Russian system is a type of the strong ruling system that has governed the country for centuries.

In its foreign policy, Russia is indeed a “regional power,” as President Barak Obama has recently characterized it, but only in the sense that it has a special preoccupation with security in Eurasia and seeks to have a decisive influence in this region. However, Russia is engaged globally and remains an important player in other regions as well even if it does not aspire to a special influence there.

What Russia wants from the world is recognition of its right to rebuild a system of a strong state, to preserve the status of a great power, and to advance its national interests in Eurasia and adjacent regions. This identity of Russia is a historically familiar one and sustainable as long as it allows room for the identities and worldviews of other powers.

Increasingly, Russia’s identity is accepted by the group of BRICS and others members of the international system, as they aspire to develop global institutions free of Western domination.

U.S. superiority complex: A major driver of U.S. foreign policy 

Can the United States say that it too transformed its identity after the Cold War in a way accepted by others? Unfortunately, the U.S. elites continued to insist on the global benefits of American hegemony, while simultaneously creating new images of outside enemies.

Islamophobia has been evident following 9/11, both within the wider population and within government, as seen in George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Since Obama has taken office, there have been also growing signs of viewing China as a major threat to the Unites States’ values and interests.

In this context of consolidating the U.S. identity through a search for new images of the “enemy,” Russia is emerging as the most potent candidate. Relative to the Cold War, not only did some U.S. politicians [former presidential candidates Sen. John McCain (2008) and Sen. Mitt Romney (2012) – Editor’s note] keep perceiving Russia as a hostile power, but also this perception failed to change in response to new events. Furthermore, in some respects, it has grown stronger.

By reading American media and statements from mainstream members of the U.S. political class, it is hard to not have the impression that the United States’ identity it still dependent on Russia for confirming the exceptionalism of American values. In short, Washington needs to expose Russia’s “imperialism” to showcase America’s way of governing around the globe through economic incentives and soft power.

To American elites, Russia makes the perfect public enemy because in the age of information technology, the United States continues to hold major advantages in the global information war. Moreover, no other country has been able to challenge U.S. values and interests as vigorously and persistently as Russia.

China speaks quietly and shows assertiveness only on limited issues such as Taiwan and geopolitical influence in the South China Sea. India and Brazil, too, avoid opposing the U.S. unilaterally and prefer to do it in concert with Russia and others. Radical Islam threatens U.S. security, but its religious values are rather parochial and are not in a position to challenge the United States in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, it is not ruled out that the more defiant Russia becomes in challenging America, the more dangerous it becomes that others may partially absorb Russia’s message and criticisms.

The Kremlin has already shown the ability to get things done by solving crises [as seen in the case of the Syrian agreement on chemical weapons – Editor’s note], concluding major economic projects [the 2014 Sochi Olympics – Editor’s note], and avoiding stalemates similar to those faced by the U.S. president in domestic politics. It remains unclear what Washington can’t put up with more – the Kremlin’s violation of human rights or its attempts to withstand U.S. political and economic pressures.

Why is anti-Russia sentiment so prevalent in the U.S.?

The U.S. phobia of Russia is internally sustained because of three reasons: the lack of knowledge about Russian among ordinary Americans; the tenacity of special interest lobbyists in confronting Russia; and a controversial presidency beholden to domestic interests.

Americans remain poorly informed about Russian realities and their views remain heavily dependent on how U.S.-Russia relations are presented by the media and politicians. Under the conditions created by America’s media, it is hard to obtain an objective understanding of Russian realities.

Rather than being a “rational choice by well-informed citizens” – such was Joseph Schumpeter’s definition of democracy – one must increasingly speak of a choice by politically minded elites shaping views of a poorly informed public. When politicians, such as Senator John McCain, want to explain to Americans about the “authoritarian” and “imperialist” nature of the Kremlin, they have easy access to CNN or any other media.

In the United States, there are also influential segments of the political class who may differ in their agendas and ethnic roots, but who nonetheless converge in viewing Russia as the most important threat to the West. Finally, the U.S. presidential system is excessively responsive to lobbies and pressures from the political class.

Suffice it to recall how anti-Russian politicians pushed through the controversial Magnitsky Act, which was presented as a way to punish the Kremlin for human rights violations but in reality, was designed as another stick against Russia after the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Although President Barack Obama did not initially support the Magnitsky Act and hoped to resolve issues with Putin differently, he signed it most likely because he did not want the issue to become a controversial domestic issue.

In this context, those in America resisting the inclination to punish Russia risk being labeled the Kremlin’s “stooges.” In the battle for national identity, any attempts at transforming how Russia is perceived in the world also risk changing how America is perceived in the world.

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