Latent Cold War sentiment continues to affect how we view our relationship with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama before the G20 summit at the Hotel "Esperanza" in Los Cabos. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexei Nikolsky
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe,” it must have brought back fond memories for Cold Warriors on both sides of the pond. Many saw the rhetoric as political haymaking, since Romney was painting President Barack Obama as too soft on Russia after Obama told Dmitry Medvedev he would have “more flexibility” on missile defense post-election.
But the latent Cold War sentiment Romney expressed lives on in Washington, and the idea that Russia is still our ideological enemy is one of several fallacies that color how U.S. lawmakers view Russian foreign policy. Here are three main misconceptions:
1. Russia is America's “number one geopolitical foe”
Romney's “geopolitical foe” comment played well in Russia, where many are nostalgic for the days when their country was one of the world's undisputed superpowers. But, flattering though that statement was, even nationalist Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky couldn't call it true, reportedly saying, “Mitt Romney's comment is a huge delusion or election campaign trickery.”
Nonetheless, the perception of Russia as the opposing “evil empire” has manifested itself everywhere, from lawmakers' bluster over the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Magnitsky Act, which brought relations to a new low.
At an April seminar on U.S.-Russian relations at New York University, one thing the panel of distinguished experts agreed on was the resilience of Cold War rhetoric in Washington. Yet the two countries are no longer ideological enemies: Russia has embraced market capitalism and popular democracy (electoral irregularities notwithstanding). According to Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the antagonism toward Russia among lawmakers and in the media is based on differences that are more perceived than real.
“It is the hangover of Cold War attitudes coupled with a misunderstanding of what happened at the end of the Cold War,” Matlock said at the seminar.
With the nuances of Putin's Russia hard to classify and understand, lawmakers have fallen back on the well-worn Soviet-era image of the country.
“No other conception has been developed on how to deal with Russia, what it is, what is the nature of this beast,” said Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist and commentator on Russian affairs for several Russian and American newspapers. “Is it a friend or a foe? Is it a democracy? Is it a populist autocracy like Venezuela?”
“It would be nice to have a clear-cut 'geopolitical foe number one,'” Bayer added. “Russia is sort of a safe candidate, because anointing China as such is expensive, and Iran or Venezuela or Cuba seems too small for the only remaining superpower.”
2. The United States won the Cold War
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan and President-elect George Bush stand together with the NY skyline & World Trade Center in background. Photo: Getty Images / Fotobank
Related to the misconception of Russia as “number one geopolitical foe” is the perception that the United States won the Cold War and can therefore dictate its conditions to Russia. In fact, as Matlock pointed out, the end of the Cold War was beneficial to both sides at the time. Furthermore, many in Russia see the country’s subsequent traumatic “shock therapy” transition to a market economy, engineered with the assistance of American advisors, as a cruel and unusual punishment by the West.
“The American victory didn't seem so complete, but the Soviet Union was constantly portrayed as an absolute villain and the economic collapse, which was blamed on liberal reformers, felt like the reparations,” Bayer said.
The image of Russia as the vanquished foe has led U.S. policymakers to demand concessions from the country while giving nothing in exchange. Putin assented to several U.S. initiatives in his first term while receiving little in return: The Russian president yielded to another round of NATO expansion and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, while also providing supply routes to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Putin is certainly no longer rolling over for the United States, not on Magnitsky, Snowden or Syria, and the president has long said that the time of Russian geopolitical concessions is “coming to an end.”
3. A Russia-China Axis has formed against the United States
New leader Xi Jinping signs key oil and gas deals. Photo: Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
A final misconception about Russia is that it has entered into an alliance with China to counterbalance U.S. influence. Russia certainly is not opposed to challenging U.S. supremacy alongside China in the United Nations Security Council. It has also been working to develop gas exports to China and recently held joint naval trials with its southern neighbor. But presenting a multi-polar alternative to America's “new world order” is one of the few things China and Russia agree on.
A number of stress fractures exist in Russia's relationship with China. For one, Russia is concerned over the growing Chinese population on both sides of the country's Russian border, even as Russia's Siberian and Far Eastern regions continue to suffer depopulation problems. It also eyes China's expanding economic presence in Central Asia, which Russia still very much views as part of its sphere of influence, with great wariness.
In addition, the two countries often find themselves opposed on regional issues in the East. For instance, Russian companies have signed deals with Vietnam to develop oil and gas resources in areas of the South China Sea that are claimed by China. Furthermore, Russia has sold attack submarines to the Vietnamese navy.