Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 11

By Aleksandr Tsipko

There is a great variety of opinion in the Russia media these days, much of it contradictory, about the reactions of the Russian people to Putin’s unexpected decision to befriend America. Some magazines and television programs point to the reassuring fact that the majority of Russians–57 percent–hope that the United States’ antiterrorist actions in Afghanistan will succeed, while no more than 23 percent of those polled want the reverse. This is based on the results of a survey conducted at the end of October by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM).

But at the same time, other sociological organizations claim precisely the opposite, that according to their surveys only 24 percent of Russians actively support the United States’ antiterrorist operation. These figures were quoted by the prominent television commentator, Aleksei Pushkov, in his daily “Postscriptum” program. Also attracting attention are the results of an interactive poll, conducted on the same Saturday, November 10, on the “Moskovia” television channel: Some 60 percent of those who called in to the program maintained that the United States is still Russia’s main enemy.

Personally, I do not think that the overwhelming majority of Russians are hostile towards the United States now, in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings of September 11. Otherwise, we would not have seen Putin’s popularity growing since that date and since Russia, on our president’s initiative, actively and willingly joined the antiterrorist coalition under the United States’ leadership. In the last two months, Putin’s rating has risen from 70 to 74 points.

Clearly, Putin’s pro-American decision will not have the support of Russia’s Muslim population, which amounts to no more than 15 percent of the total. The numerous interviews given by the leader of the “Islamic Committee,” Khaidar Jamal are eloquent testimony to this. And, obviously, the alliance with America is opposed by left-wing fundamentalists and that predetermined part of the older generation which still suffers from Cold War syndrome. But at the same time, the majority Slavic part of the Russian population clearly feels not the slightest sympathy for the Afghan Taliban and therefore cannot but hope for an American victory in Afghanistan. Since the Chechen wars, many ethnic Russians have come to the conclusion that the major threats all come from the South.

All this indicates that Russian attitudes towards the United States since the tragedy of September 11 are still much better than they were three or four years ago, at the time of the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO air forces. By and large, the Russians have never had anything against the Americans as people. Anti-American attitudes have always been born out of a negative reaction to expansionism by various U.S. administrations. Sympathy for the United States has broadened now because of the renowned ‘universal sensitivity’ of the Russian soul, and an intrinsic compassion for the sufferings of the terrorists’ victims. Sympathy for the United States is growing also because of far-reaching changes in the way of life of Russians, of whom many, or at least those who have adapted to the new economic realities, are beginning to harmonize their geopolitical sympathies with their new lifestyle. Putin quite justifiably maintained that his personal decision, as president, to stand by America was based on the fact that “the overwhelming majority of Russians want to live in conditions governed by effectively functioning democratic institutions. The overwhelming majority of Russians want to live in social market conditions, want to feel that they and their country are a natural part of the modern civilized world, and want to feel this both on an international level and in their daily, personal lives. People want to be able to move freely around the world and want to be able to enjoy all the benefits that normal modern democratic society offers”.

Even that part of Russian society too disadvantaged to benefit directly from democracy and modern civilized life, in my view, has no deep-seated, fundamental revulsion for America. All these voguish discussions about a unique Russian mentality, about Russian “conciliarism” (sobornost) and a special ‘orthodox collectivism’, all of which are supposed by their very nature to be the antithesis of American individualism, have no real foundation in life. The overwhelming majority of Russians, more than 60 percent, put material comforts at the top of their list of values. In its social and cultural make-up, Russia today is an individualized and, in many respects, a westernized country. The “East,” with its culture of suppression of the individual and its patriarchal family relations, is in fact alien to the modern Russian.

There is a view that even the negative attitude to the United States among part of the population is situational, rather than fundamental in character or based in principle. This section of the population is concentrated chiefly in provincial Russia, and regards the United States in exactly the same way as it does to its own capital, Moscow. What we see in both instances is the ingrained envy of the poor for the wealth of others. It is a matter of hostility to America or to Moscow, combined with an objective appreciation of their social and economic advantages. For many Russians, the American way of life is the incarnation of an earthly paradise of abundance and material well-being, which is, for them, unattainable. So the ostensibly negative attitude towards the United States is more accurately one of resentment and the envy felt for a more successful and powerful rival. Yet this is not a negation of America’s domestic values of material well-being, the strong family and private ownership. Envy of the United States as a successful competitor first emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it became obvious that we’d lost everything and that the Americans had won it all, and it became clear that our own communism had brought us to a dead end, while the American capitalist system had guaranteed not only economic prosperity but the might of the United States as a state. This is one aspect of the problem.

The attitude to the United States is situational in another sense because it depends in large measure on the attitude of the leadership of this country to our national dignity and to our national sovereignty. When presidents of the United States have conducted dialogue with us as equal partners, as Bush is doing, then there are no special grounds for anti-American feeling. This has always been true, as during the Second World War years, when the United States and the USSR were allies in the struggle against fascist Germany. Relations are conducted in the same favorable climate now that we have become allies in the struggle against international terrorism.

Incidentally, even at the height of the Cold War, in Stalin’s time, as I recall, many Soviet citizens remembered with warmth the cooperation and friendship which existed between our countries during the war. So it was no accident that the collapse of communism prompted an unusual liberal romanticism, which masked a secret affection for America. And this survived so long as people believed that a democratic Russia, set free from communism, would remain as great a power as before and that, with the death of communism, the democratic United States and the new Russia would be equal partners. Anti-American attitudes began to develop only when it became clear that the democratization of the country had in fact led to a decline in the power and well-being of former years. Here we must understand–and it is important to remember, when forecasting how relations between the United States and Russia will develop post September 11–that while the Russians can handle almost anything, they will never accept the demise of their state as a sovereign power, capable of playing an independent role in the international arena. Russian national identity is tightly bound up with this idea of Russia’s traditional great-power status. And so long as the alliance and cooperation with the United States does not undermine this perception of the state as a real power, Putin’s policy will not be in danger.

At any rate, everyone now understands that anti-American sentiment emerged when the country’s new leadership–above all the so-called government of the ‘young reformers’–failed to take due account of this national dignity, and cast Russia in the unaccustomed role of ‘student of democracy and market reforms’. In this period, a significant number of Russians began to identify these reformers, whom they detested, with the United States, and began to transfer their dissatisfaction with the burden of reform on to the leadership of the United States. This happened particularly because the Clinton administration contrived to strike up a friendship with the politicians most hated by ordinary Russians–the despised Chubais and Gaidar. This friendship between the Clinton team and the ‘reformers’ damaged not only the standing of the United States in the eyes of the Russian people, but also the business of democratic reforms and of the new Russia’s entry into contemporary European civilization.

It is now clear how, with the Republicans and the Bush administration in power in the United States, Putin has been able to turn over a new leaf in relations, without recourse to any of the democratic intermediaries formerly used between our two countries. Here Putin has been helped greatly by the new administration’s critical attitude to the results of our market reforms, which have given rise to corruption and the misappropriation of loans. The new administration has also played a positive role by refraining from interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, treating the Russian people with disrespect, trying to pass judgment on who is or is not a democrat, and from attempting to equate the fate of the freedom of speech in Russia with that of Vladimir Gusinsky’s media empire.

I make these comments on the situational nature of Russian attitudes to the United States in order to outline the limits within which there is a chance to preserve the new and almost amicable relations between our countries. Russians are not really mercenary, they don’t really know how to bargain and they are not looking for direct gains from their good deeds. And Putin has been sincere. Russia has done everything possible to help secure a victory for the United States’ antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, guided above all by moral sentiments and the desire to help a country in trouble. I think that Putin, even in taking a decision that was very unpopular in Russia–especially with the military–to close down our bases in Cuba and Vietnam, was also guided by a desire to do his utmost to demonstrate our trust in our new American partners as well as our genuine wish to make a breakthrough in relations between our two countries in the new century.

So it will be a pity if Russians do not see the Americans responding in kind to our sincerity and good intentions. They have not forgotten how quite recently, only ten years ago, Gorbachev’s unilateral concessions, especially on the matter of German unification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, were regarded by the West as the “defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.” It will be bad news if the same sort of thing happens again now, and Putin’s good deeds and intentions, and–let us be frank–his high-risk decisions, receive an inadequate response from the new US administration. It must be recognized that it’s too late for Putin to pull out now, and that he is already a hostage to the good will of the new U.S. president. We have already gone out of our way to help the United States, and now everything depends on Mr. Bush taking reciprocal steps. It should be understood that the people of Russia will support Putin’s new pro-American stance as long as they perceive it to be built on a basis of parity and equal rights, and perceive too that the American nation respects both the dignity of our state and our national interests.

Everything still hangs by a thread. Not only our new, fragile friendship but also the personal fate of Putin and his policies as head of state depend on any step taken by the new administration of the United States that might be interpreted by the Russian people as an act of disrespect, such as, for example, the bombing of Iraq or a unilateral breach of the ABM Treaty. It would be most undesirable for him to go down in the national memory as another Gorbachev, responsible for the destruction of the state.

Putin is potentially in a worse position now than not only Gorbachev but also Yeltsin. Gorbachev went along with the wishes of the United States and the West, relying on the whole population’s weariness with the fear of nuclear war, relying also on the widespread illusion that democracy and freedom would not only bring economic prosperity but would also guarantee our geopolitical advantages as a great power. Yeltsin’s political base for rapprochement with the West was considerably narrower. But he also had all the liberal democrats actively supporting his pro-American policies. And under Yeltsin all the influential media were working in support of his western ‘democratic course’.

But when Putin, after September 11, took the unexpectedly decisive step towards rapprochement with the United States, he had only one ally: His high rating. The paradox is that, in making this historic shift towards the West, Putin was taking advantage of a rating which was based on anti-Western and anti-American sentiments. Putin was brought to power by the hopes of the overwhelming, patriotically inclined majority of the population that he would be a leader capable of restoring Russia’s traditional power and authority, and that he would begin to challenge the ‘supremacy of the United States’, and pursue an independent foreign policy. And Putin, to give him his due, spent almost two years constructing a foreign policy in tune with these great-power sentiments. But now there has been a complete change of direction, with the decision to follow in the wake of the United States and under its leadership, if only for the duration of the antiterrorist operation.

In this new situation, since diverging from his previous foreign policy, it seems that there are two scenarios that will allow Putin to retain his popularity and, most important, his power. The first relates to the hope that the new US administration will safeguard Russia’s status as a world power, at least in geopolitical terms, and will treat her as an equal partner, at least in matters relating to the global security of the modern civilized world. As yet the old majority is sticking with Putin because Bush is stressing, whether intentionally or not, that for him the support of Russia is more important than that of Western Europe. This satisfies the Russian people’s traditional great-power ambitions. And they will remain satisfied as long as the Bush administration is not tempted to put us in our place again, leaving us as a mere regional power.

The second way in which Putin might retain power in this new situation is more complex. It presupposes a change in the composition of the majority in response to the change in foreign policy. Such a change presupposes a shift from dependency on the ‘patriotic’ majority to dependency on a liberal majority. It also presupposes a qualitative change in the legitimacy of the Putin regime. But such a transition is possible only if the Bush administration acts now, without delay, to provide maximum economic support for Russia. It is a question not only of revoking the archaic and discriminatory sanctions against Russia, but also of alleviating our debt problems.

For Putin to remain in power now, it is most important to demonstrate to the people of Russia that the rapprochement with the United States and the West will not only not adversely affect their welfare, as it did under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but will on the contrary guarantee substantial progress in all facets of their lives. If his pro-Western course is not backed by a real improvement in people’s welfare, then things will go badly for Putin. After all, his many opponents–left-wing patriots, the frustrated military and, oddly enough, those stalwart friends of America, the liberals–are just waiting for him to fail. And it’s too late for Putin to turn back.

Aleksandr Tsipko is a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.