The Russian public’s reaction to the tragic shooting in Orlando shows that a potential rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia might be further away than originally thought.
People hold up candles against a rainbow lit backdrop during a vigil for those killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub downtown Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. Photo: AP
The reaction of the Russian public to the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida shows that the concept of international terrorism as a common enemy unfortunately is no longer enough to bridge the gap between Russia and the United States. In contrast, after 9/11, the threat of international terrorism served as a unifying force between the two nations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted as quickly as he had following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sending a message of condolence to President Barack Obama. This, no doubt, attests to the sincerity of the sympathy that the Russian leader felt for the pain of the American people, and about his readiness to use this moment for increased political communication and common understanding.
However, if we look at a number of events that followed the massacre, it is apparent that we should not expect a return of the international anti-terrorist coalition of 2001-2002 or the formation of any new bond between Washington and Moscow. Considering present realities, this is just not possible.
In short, a number of significant factors are pushing the countries apart, to the point that a new massive terrorist attack in the United States may even cause a more permanent rift. Such an event has the ability to distance the countries even further in how they perceive the current state of world affairs and in their approach to fighting terrorist threats.
Over the last couple of years, certain opinions have been forming in the Russian public, with the deliberate input of state-sponsored propaganda. Very concrete ideas have been presented in the media about the hostile nature of U.S. foreign policy, the destructive nature of American hegemony, about secret ties between the United States and Islamic terrorists, and about the moral superiority of traditional values over Western liberal values.
The Russian government has put forward these ideas, first of all to guarantee the stable domestic support for those currently in power. These points not only strengthen those in power but also undermine the values of the opposition parties, showing the opposition to be in agreement with the values of Russia’s enemies. This ideology has also shown that most, if not all, of Russia’s problems come from abroad, and that the current government protects the public from destructive foreign influences.
On the whole, the entire propaganda campaign can be seen as a great success. All of the campaign’s main goals have been reached, as the worldview of the Russian public has been “corrected” in the right direction.
However, any media project of this scale and magnitude is bound to have unintended consequences. The public opinion that Russian officials generated with its media campaign is now preventing them from implementing new political strategies, especially when it comes to international relations.
Many events of the last several months indicate that Putin is looking for ways to normalize relations with the West, but on his own terms. He wants an admission from the United States that Russia is a great country, whose opinion must be considered, consulted, and respected when it comes to vital matters of international politics. It is this normalization that can be seen as the most important goal of Putin’s foreign policy. It is unlikely that the Russian president became involved in Crimea, the Donbas and Syria just for the sake of creating conflict with the West, and isolating himself behind a new Iron Curtain.
But the Russia public, pumped full of new hatred towards the United States, and often convinced of the existence of a worldwide anti-Russian conspiracy, does not want normalization of relations and does not believe that it’s even possible.
The terrorist attack in Orlando and the news of Putin’s condolences generated a wave of crude and politically incorrect comments on Russian social media. Many of them signal a real dead end for U.S.-Russia relations. Here are just some of them, and by far not the most radical:
“Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! It is your personal right to send condolences to Obama about the deaths of gays — he is, after all, your international partner. I hope you did not include the people of Russia to your comment, as we do not support you in this!”
“The U.S. purposely created ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria] to fight us, they are putting up missile defenses against us, and much, much more, all against Russia. I would not be surprised if they killed those gays themselves because the United States is out of its mind and full of perverted freaks.”
“They already made contact with ISIS, who agreed to take the blame upon themselves. All in all, it’s a win-win situation, NATO gets extra funding, and the world will fear ISIS more and more.”
At the end of the week when Russia’s television will broadcast its regular political programming, the talk show hosts will no doubt express similar ideas, albeit more softly worded. The Orlando attack, as sad as it is to admit, is a real goldmine for Russia’s anti-American propaganda.
First, the attack shows that U.S. security services are ill equipped and unable to guarantee the safety of American citizens. Second, it is a reason to bring up the ease with which one can purchase firearms in America. Third, it is an attack against homosexuals, a group whose lifestyle is duly condemned by the traditionally minded Russian government. And fourth, it is another opportunity to indicate to the United States that they refused to support an anti-ISIS coalition with Russia.
It would be hard to believe that the Russian media would not exploit any of the above-mentioned possibilities to discredit the U.S. just because Putin wishes to use this particular event to improve relations with Obama. The propaganda machine is now moving at full speed and it would be very difficult to turn back.
Besides, there is an understanding in the Kremlin that even after a mass shooting perpetrated by a follower of ISIS, there is little reason for the White House to reconsider its policies and court Russia’s favor. This is not 2001, and many Americans believe that Russian actions in Syria hinder, not help, in the fight against radical Islamists.
The developments in U.S.-Russia relations following the massacre in Orlando should serve as a lesson for Russian politicians and media strategists. The terrorist attack clearly demonstrated that the U.S. and Russia are on the same side in a fight of civilization against barbarism. But this commonality cannot be turned into anything benefiting the two nations in terms of improving international security. The Russian public is so galvanized with hatred towards the United States, and so infected with homophobia, that it seems reluctant not only to see cooperation between the countries but also to do something as basic as sympathizing with the victims.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that near the American Embassy in Moscow, where a couple dozen Russians did bring flowers on June 13, there was also a protest of the activist group Bozhya Volia (God’s Will). The activists of Bozhya Volia were urging the police to arrest homosexuals who gathered to distribute the illegal “homosexual propaganda.”
As a result, the police did arrest two people who came to the embassy and placed down flowers along with a sign saying “Love Wins.” Unfortunately, even if love wins somewhere, it clearly does not in modern Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.