What explains the sometimes obsessive anti-Americanism of Russian elites?

Speaking earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that his country and the West are headed towards a “new Cold War.” He criticized Western leaders’ characterization of Russia as their biggest threat and wondered aloud whether the year was 2016 or 1962.

Yet the West is hardly to blame for renewed tensions. The real problem is that Russia is ruled by the leaders whose understanding of the world actually does stem directly from 1962.

Long live the conspiracy theory

Some analysts claim that current anti-Americanism among the Russian leadership is purely instrumental and policy-related. But there is much more to it than that. The notion that the United States is trying to destroy Russia appears in various shapes and sizes throughout the Soviet and contemporary Russian history. 

Take, for example, the Soviet conspiracy theory known as “Dulles’ Plan,” according to which the CIA chief Allen Dulles allegedly sought to destroy the Soviet Union during the Cold War by secretly corrupting the Soviet cultural heritage and morals. The theory received considerable buy-in, with Major-General Andrey Sidorenko, for one, calling the Dulles Plan the “frankest statement of how the Western special services planned to achieve their aims towards Russia” in his 2004 memoirs.

Or read the interview in early February with Leonid Reshetnikov, a head of Russia’s Kremlin-linked Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), in the popular Russian newspaper Argumenty I Fakty. (RISS, a think tank under the umbrella of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, was restructured in 2009 to get funding directly from the office of the president.) In his recent interview, Reshetnikov made several bold historical claims, including that “the United States first attempted to destroy Russia in 1917 by assisting the Bolsheviks, that Washington tried it again by hounding Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in late 1930s, and yet again by destroying the Soviet Union in 1991.

Vladimir Putin’s top security adviser Nikolay Patrushev has similarly suggested that the United States has tried to “dismember Russia.” Putin himself has accused the West of attempting to weaken his nation by stealing its natural resources. (Journalists have traced these concepts to a 2006 interview with Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general from the Russian secret service, in which he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the service’s secret mind-reading division had read thoughts of Madeleine Albright in 1999—they allegedly discovered her “pathological hatred of Slavs” and resented Russia’s natural resource wealth.)

It’s worth pointing out that Reshetnikov, Patrushev, and Putin are all former Soviet secret service officers. All three served in Russia’s security services during the peak of Soviet anti-Americanism, which followed the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The security services—exposed more to “dangerous” Western influences than the ordinary Soviet citizens—were indoctrinated particularly well. It’s no surprise that decades later, they continue to exhibit a degree of paranoia as to Washington’s intentions.

At the same time (and perhaps paradoxically), many Soviet leaders developed an obsession with the United States due to their aspiration to become and surpass the United States. Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov has written that from the 1960s onwards, Kruschev’s slogan “to catch up with and overtake America” became a declaration of the key goals of the Soviet leadership. That, in turn, constituted a key element of the national-political self-identification of Soviet elites.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the Russian elite (including in particular those in the security services) continued to hold strong views about the United States—and in many ways continued to define itself with regards to it. (Most ordinary Russians, in contrast, didn’t have firm attitudes about America, as reflected in sharp swings in polls). When these former Soviet security officers returned to power in early 2000s, the new era of anti-Americanism began.

Russia today

In the view of many contemporary Russian leaders, the United States occupies a space on the world stage that rightly belongs to Russia—based on its possession of nuclear weapons, its history and culture, having the largest national territory, and other factors. Yet Russia’s apparent inability to compete with the United States on the world stage has resulted, for some leaders in Moscow, in mixed feelings of resentment, envy, and admiration. 

Such preoccupation with the United States fuels the notion that 1) the United States is also explicitly focused on Russia and incessantly attempts to damage it, and 2) most of the goings-on in the international arena occur according to U.S. orders. This helps explain why in the rhetoric of Russian elites, the United States is responsible for almost every major world development, including every problem Russia faces domestically and internationally.

One can hardly describe the origins of this sentiment better than George Kennan did in 1946

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”

The obsession among Russian elites—particularly in the Kremlin—with the United States is real and sincere. The challenge is that many of them have biased perceptions of reality, and it’s hard to combat that mindset. The opportunity is that most Russians do not have strong opinions on the West and increasingly want to improve relations with Europe and the United States. U.S. and other Western policymakers should continue to engage in people-to-people contact that helps promote a more honest and positive view of the Western world. Yet Western policymakers should also keep in mind that the beliefs of the current elites will probably stay the same, as they are based on deep psychological and historical grounds. Policy-wise, that means that Russia under the current presidency of Vladimir Putin will likely continue to view the United States as an enemy and structure its foreign policy accordingly, whatever the Russian elites say publicly at international meetings. Friendship and a successful “reset” are highly unlikely in the near future.