Russia’s emotional response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech might be accounted for by both Russia’s historic inferiority complex and the mounting toll of the country’s current economic difficulties.
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015. Photo: AP
Russian politicians responded in unison to U.S. President Barack Obama’s pointed criticism of Russia in his annual State of the Union Address to Congress. That Obama would mention Russia in a negative context on the Capitol was clear in advance. But it was the abrasive tone of the American leader that surprised Moscow.
What seemed to be abrasive to many were the words Obama used to describe the Russian economy, which he described as being “in tatters.” One of the first to comment on this on his Twitter account was Russian hardliner Dmitry Rogozin.
“By announcing that the Russian economy is ‘in tatters’ thanks to the USA, President Barack Obama has declared he is daydreaming,” Russian Federation Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. “It’s like a puppy tearing a rag to bits,” he said, referring to a popular Russian expression.
The reaction of other Russian officials was also largely predictable and simply repeated the Kremlin’s rhetoric of the past year.
“The USA doesn’t like the fact that the unipolar world is changing and Russia is now stepping into the position of a counterweight,” said Franz Klintsevich, a member of the Duma’s Defense Committee, repeating the famous statement of the country’s leaders.
“Speaking about how he has managed to tear up Russia’s economy, Obama is trying to distract Americans from internal problems, and at the same time is justifying to his European partners their losses caused by the sanctions,” asserted Duma Vice Speaker Sergey Neverov.
On the eve of Obama’s State of the Union Address, the Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov gave an interview to the weekly paper Argumenty i Fakty, in which he stated that the West was attempting to “smother Russia” and topple Putin.
The increasingly emotional reaction from Russian leaders to the words and actions of America’s leader is, in general, easily explained. Russia is experiencing a severe economic crisis, although saying that its economy is “in tatters” would be an exaggeration, especially in the context of Obama’s speech about what had been achieved as the result of targeted sanctions by the United States.
What is more likely is that Russia suffered, primarily, from a lack of adequate social and economic strategy on the part of the Russian leadership and a sharp drop in the price of oil.
Furthermore, such an emotional reaction can be explained psychologically. One can suggest that the Russian political elite is trying with all its force to attract America’s attention to Kremlin politics. Their calls for equal relations conceal a profound inferiority complex that was formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. How far they are prepared to go with this rhetoric is difficult to divine.
But let’s try to examine the situation from a different angle. Obama’s address to Congress was unexpectedly optimistic, in contrast to his address to Congress in January 2013. Then, having only just won the elections, Obama appeared constrained. This time, he was very confident, laughing at his own jokes, winking at the audience and deftly using his body language to parry attempts by his Republican opponents to challenge his rectitude with a smattering of applause.
Obama’s confidence is understandable – the United States in the past year has achieved notable economic success. In 2013, the level of unemployment in the U.S. had reached 7.9 percent and the fall of GDP by the end of 2012 was 0.1 percent. Today unemployment has dropped to an acceptable 5.6 percent, and in the third and fourth quarters of last year, economic growth rose to 5.0 and 4.6 percent respectively. The improved economic landscape has been reflected in the president’s ratings: According to the latest public opinion polls, he has reached the 50 percent level, which is 10 points higher than he had last year.
However, as columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post, in Obama’s address on Jan. 20 there were “two very different States of the Union.” And if Obama was extremely convincing in that part which related to the domestic situation in the United States, then the foreign policy part of the speech, including that which was relevant to Russia, was extremely vague.
Indeed, the nation did not receive any answers to very pressing questions that are relevant to America’s security. For example: Will the pro-Western Afghan government survive the withdrawal of American troops?
Obama announced that he would ask Congress to adopt a package of legislative proposals concerning the use of force against the Islamic State, but does not specify what that package is. Americans have heard almost nothing about the plans of the White House on Iran, and in fact, in this area the political stakes are very high.
Finally, Obama mentions “Russian aggression against Ukraine,” but did not say whether his administration intends to help Kiev with heavy weapons, or whether they plan to provide large scale financial help to Ukraine.
It is possible that Obama’s foreign policy suffers from the same shortcomings as that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The American president develops foreign policy reactively, that is, only responding to those changes that take place in the world without trying to establish a coherent strategy, which would include an element of prediction and prevent potential conflicts. Like Putin, he does not have sufficient foresight and, for that reason, America has experienced a complete series of failures during Obama’s presidency, primarily in the Middle East, but also in his attempts to reset relations with Russia.
It is encouraging that in the last two years of his mandate Obama has bounced back on a wave of all American enthusiasm. Russia is clearly experiencing a loss of momentum. However, in this interdependent world, having an economy “in tatters” should not bring joy to anyone, because the fall could cause a chain reaction everywhere, as indeed happened during the financial crisis in 2008 which began in the United States and then spread to the Old World.
Currently, the economic turmoil in Russia is already causing turbulence in Western Europe – turbulence that could cross the ocean. Just in time for the presidential election campaign in 2016, whose interests now are primarily concerned with U.S. domestic policy rather than foreign policy.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.