Why They Hate Us
Updated: Aug 23, 2018
It’s a common tendency for Americans and their close European allies to view Russia as a sinister and powerful force provoking conflict and sowing discord in Western liberal democracies and across the world. In many ways, this is factually correct: Putin’s government did in all likelihood attempt to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has saved the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad from defeat, and is currently funding, arming, and training pro-Russian rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, precipitating a conflict which has taken over 5,000 lives, and, to shockingly little international outcry, conquered by force the Ukrainian province of Crimea.
Many members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was originally founded to curtail Russian incursion into Central and Western Europe, are increasingly taking matters into their own hands: the Baltic states, such as Estonia and Lithuania, are heavily conscripting and training their populations; Poland is lobbying for a permanent American military base in its territory. The common denominator is a fear of Russian invasion, something which would have been considered laughable not fifteen years ago. All of this gives strong credence to the arguments of the foreign policy hawks and the neoconservatives who say that the West must do everything possible to frustrate Russia’s geopolitical interests. But none of the hawks or neoconservatives seem able to explain why Russia is so suddenly and forcefully pursuing an anti-Western agenda, when to the informed observer the trend seemed to be going in the exact opposite direction until recent years.
Naturally, the answer is not a simple one. In short, Russia is, not without reason, deeply paranoid of Westerners and their ideologies. Not taught in most Western schools, the Allied intervention on the side of the anti-communist Whites during the Russian Civil War caused fears of “foreign interventionists” in the Soviet Union for decades. The long and tense Cold War, too, has left a mark on the Western and Russian psyche alike. When it ended in 1989, most commentators cheered for a new, Westernized, liberal Russia. And indeed, many Russians were, at the time, deeply optimistic about a world in which their country would become an equal partner alongside America, France, and Britain. That their hopes were dashed is in part because the U.S. has overplayed its hand.
When the Clinton Administration found out that Boris Yeltsin (a key player in the fall of the Soviet Union) was on track to lose the 1996 election, it panicked, and resorted to drastic action. Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 election is now widely regarded to have been won only with the help of American advisers on his campaign and a large (and dubious) cash handout from the International Monetary Fund. This was not an alien tactic to the U.S. From the New York Times: “Bags of cash delivered to a Rome hotel for favored Italian candidates. Scandalous stories leaked to foreign newspapers to swing an election in Nicaragua. Millions of pamphlets, posters and stickers printed to defeat an incumbent in Serbia… The long arm of Vladimir Putin? No, just a small sample of the United States’ history of intervention in foreign elections”.* Matt Taibbi, a correspondent for Rolling Stone who worked in Russia as a journalist during these years, summed it up thusly: “Picture Putin sending envoys to work out of the White House to help coordinate Trump’s re-election campaign, and you can imagine how this played in Russia”.**
In addition, experts from the U.S. and Europe came to Russia to guide its transition from state ownership to private enterprise, and in the process gave themselves a bad reputation as cavalier neocolonialists sucking Russia dry of its rich natural resources. They were also largely responsible for the creation of the new class of Russian oligarchs; and the Yeltsin era is seen by Russians as one in which their country was little more than an American puppet state. Finally, America used this moment of Russian weakness to aggressively expand the pool of NATO members to include several nations right on Russia’s doorstep, including Ukraine. Russia, which once even had hopes of joining NATO and counting on the West as an ally, was badly disillusioned by these events.
As you can see from the map above, American military bases surround the Russian Federation. How would the average American react if shown a map depicting Russian military bases in Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean islands? The world was almost destroyed in 1961 when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles in Cuba — never mind the fact that America had already amassed a significant arsenal of warheads in Turkey, on the border of the U.S.S.R. Russia has always prided itself on being a large and powerful empire, which is partly why Putin’s government is so concerned with fixing the obvious imbalance in strength between NATO and the Federation, and why the man himself once referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. The fact that “ethnic Russians”, such as those that live in Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, and elsewhere are not part of a greater Russian state is also a source of perennial embarrassment to Putin.
When President Trump was asked whether he held Russia responsible for “anything”, he famously responded that “both countries [are] responsible” and that “we are all to blame”.*** This was largely lambasted as a ridiculous, flippant response which did little to answer the question at hand. But it is, for the record, factually correct.
This is not to say that America should abandon its allies in the Baltics or elsewhere in Europe simply out of some idea of historical “fairness”. The world is unequivocally better off under the hegemony of America and Europe rather than of Russia and China, and even our more unsavoury actions such as election-rigging should not properly be equated to Russia’s. Once more from the Times: “Russian and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule… Equating the two, [one expert says], ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns — the motivation matters’”.* The European Union also should make a stronger effort to combat Russian aggression on its doorstep. (Germany has been particularly weak on this front). American efforts to counter Russia will never be truly effective if its European partners are not equally enthusiastic.
Whilst maintaining a strong commitment to liberal democracy, NATO, and the enlightenment values of the West, policymakers in America and Europe would do well to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the roots of this new Russian foreign policy. Doing so will make their decisions more informed and more effective. Putin is not some dark overlord; he is a competent statesman with a desire to see his country strong and respected by the rest of the world. It just so happens that his doing so will make the world a worse place.
* The New York Times. "Russia Isn’t The Only One Meddling In Elections. We Do It, Too.". 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/sunday-review/russia-isnt-the-only-one-meddling-in-elections-we-do-it-too.html. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.
** Taibbi, Matt. Rolling Stone. "What Does Russiagate Look Like To Russians?". 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/what-does-russiagate-look-like-to-russians-252909/. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.
*** Cillizza, Chris. "The 21 Most Disturbing Lines From Donald Trump's Press Conference With Vladimir Putin". CNN, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/16/politics/21-lines-donald-trump-vladimir-putin-summit/index.html. Accessed 20 Aug 2018.
At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a second year student at the University of St Andrews studying History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and U.S. foreign policy.