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The United States in Russia’s Public Opinion and Contemporary Political Thought



The mainstream media make frequent reference to the idea that the United States is viewed negatively by the majority of Russians. Similarly, we are accustomed to hearing that Russia – understood as the Russian authorities — is hostile to America. In both cases, we are dealing with purposely broad generalizations that are inherently misleading. It cannot be said that they are totally erroneous, but they certainly oversimplify the picture. Now more than ever, in the aftermath of the Russian collusion hoax and ongoing anti-Russia hysteria, it is important to understand the current social and political dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

America in Russia’s Social Discourse

First of all, the universal rejection of America by the Russian public is not the case anymore. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center, 42% of Russians viewed the U.S. positively in January 2020. Russian anti-Americanism peaked in 2015 and has considerably declined since then, despite remaining disagreements in Russian-American relations. Moreover, in November 2019, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported that Russians supported the strengthening of Russian-American cooperation in the domains of security (52% of respondents), culture (47%), and politics (45%), which essentially means that Russians are ready for a potential reset of U.S.-Russia relations.

More importantly, even if Russians’ aversion to America and the West as such does exist, it in no way applies to all areas of life. As sociologist Denis Volkov put it, “for Russians, the West was and is a symbol of a rich, prosperous life,” and it seems that no geopolitical contradictions could change this notion. Zachery Tyson Brown writes that “Russia and the United States are so fixated on one another because each sees in the other a warped reflection of itself.” The U.S. is Russia’s coveted “Other,” since the political life of Russia without hating, loving, criticizing or admiring America is hard to imagine.

Take, for example, Russia’s internal political disputes. At first glance, pro-American and pro-European opposition leaders appear to promote a westernization agenda contrasted with the patriotic agenda of the Russian government. In reality, all Russia’s political actors are somehow engaged in the interpretation of the American experience, trying to adjust it to their own needs. Russian patriotism is not inward-looking — it is apparently a projection in some ways. One of the most popular pro-government talk shows broadcasted by Russia’s state television is called “60 Minutes,” both high-ranking officials and “freedom fighters” gladly send their children to British and American universities, whereas the creation of a Russian version of Silicon Valley has been one of the core elements of Russia’s innovation policies under Vladimir Putin. Russia relies too much on America’s experience to be called its enemy: this relationship more closely resembles lingering grudges between old friends rather than enmity or hostility.

America in Russia’s Foreign Policy Discourse

Many of Russia’s international activities of recent decades can be attributed to Russia’s quest to achieve an equal position with the U.S. and to act like America has equipped Russia with a multitude of foreign policy instruments that would not have been used but for Washington’s opening move. Russian political experts often say that the 2014 referendum in Crimea was the same thing as Kosovo’s independence in 2008. From the U.S. perspective, Crimea is not Kosovo. From Russia’s perspective, there is not much difference between the two cases.

The point is that Russia’s realpolitik emphasizes legal and procedural aspects, but allows no sacred values. Russians have repeatedly stated that the American-led intervention in Syria was not endorsed by the Syrian Government, whereas Russia was officially requested to provide military aid. Another common refrain is that the 2014 revolution in Ukraine led to the toppling of a popularly elected President, whom Russia was glad to support. In both cases, the Kremlin supported the status quo rather than political change. From Russia’s realpolitik perspective, the rules-based international order embodies western hegemony rather than the common good. Moscow does not view the protection of this order as a goal in itself. This brings us to a very important point: Russians simply do not believe that America’s foreign policy can be based on values and principles rather than on geopolitical motivations. Most Russians are deeply convinced that democratic principles are only a pretext to justify Washington’s interference in the affairs of other nations. This perception applies both to Syria and Ukraine. It may appear superficial to a liberal American, but it appears perfectly logical to a Russian.

Furthermore, Russians too often overestimate the centrality of their country to America’s foreign policy. This is visible especially in arms control debates: Russian politicians see Russian-American arms control treaties as the cornerstone of international security, as if we continued to live in a bipolar world structured around Soviet-American relations. Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction capacity are still viewed as major determinants of both bilateral relations and world politics. Consequently, Russian authorities expect the U.S. and its allies to recognize Moscow’s role in guaranteeing international stability and peace. One of the key goals of Russia’s major foreign policy initiatives is to reiterate this importance. Another feature of Russia’s foreign policy discourse is the tendency to perceive the U.S. as “an all-powerful orchestrator of global political developments.” This actually resembles how some American pundits view Russia, while Russian media attribute many political developments in Russia and abroad to the activities of American state agencies and non-governmental organizations.

All these perceptions and peculiarities have a considerable impact on U.S.-Russia relations. This impact is not necessarily detrimental as such, but Moscow and Washington should become more aware of it in an effort to choose better policy options in bilateral interactions.

Making Russians Pro-American

Russian-American rapprochement would become closer if the U.S. and Russia could adjust to prejudices and biases against each other existing in their societies and political systems. That said, there are several policy changes that should be implemented by Washington to make Russians and Russia’s authorities more positive about America and its policies.

1. Deal with Russia’s ambitions

It is sometimes argued that Russia’s ambitions have no limits. In fact, this is not the case at all. Russia seeks some political influence in the post-Soviet space and resents the U.S. for expanding America’s influence in Europe. Washington should carefully evaluate Russia’s aspirations and satisfy those that can be met without hampering American interests. The recognition of the Eurasian Economic Union and the suspension of NATO enlargement would probably be enough to neutralize Russia’s suspicion.

2. Speak Russia’s language

Russia tends to see global politics in terms of hard power and influence rather that values and soft power. Therefore, the U.S. could allow Russia to achieve formal political dominance in its regions of interest, while ensuring America’s informal dominance and leadership. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, which are typically viewed as Russia’s allies, maintain perfect relations with the West. These countries may become role models of successful Russian-American cooperation: it seems that Washington and Moscow have no deep disagreements over Kazakhstan’s or Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical stances.

3. Sign agreements that are win-win

Russian policy-makers feel concerned about the unravelling of the Russian-American arms control framework. They sincerely believe that U.S.-Russia bilateral treaties are central to international peace and stability. Moscow views its nuclear arms as an important part of Russia’s political standing; strategic dialogue with Moscow implies the recognition of Russia’s role in international relations. If the U.S. agrees to revive the bilateral arms control dialogue, it will take an important step towards better relations with Russia.

4. Encourage peer-to-peer dialogue

As noted above, Russians see America and the West as the locus of economic wealth and power. They would be pleased to learn from the American experience, even though they may view the U.S. negatively. Russia’s authorities are unhappy with foreign interference in internal political affairs, but cultural and humanitarian cooperation channels remain open, and they provide great opportunities for strengthening bilateral relations.

Long-Term Prospects

There is reason to hope that Russians’ attitude to America and Americans will further improve in the foreseeable future. As Denis Volkov put it, “Most likely, when sanctions are lifted, the general positive mood will quickly recover.” However, he also stated that “suspicion of latent western hostility towards Russia, as well as distrust of the U.S. and the EU, will persist for a long time.”

On top of that, the lifting of sanctions against Russia is yet to come, and there is no guarantee that it will happen anytime soon. All this means that although the acute phase of Russian-American competition will inevitably be overcome, the establishment of a new positive relationship will require additional efforts on the part of both Russia and the U.S. These efforts should not be limited to negotiations, treaties, and agreements between governments and political institutions. They should include updating all the components of the U.S.-Russia relationship, including social, cultural, and economic ties. Moving forward, shared interests must be identified and acted upon in order to effectively extinguish lingering disagreements and proactively address future ones.

The inability to differentiate between the interests of governments and their respective citizens has been an underlying cause to many of the modern misconceptions held by policy-makers and experts. Over time, these misconceptions have acted as assumptions that are fundamental to their decision-making process. It is naturally a product of disinformation and the media environment that exists today. The fact of the matter is that countless great decisions can ultimately be undermined by the wrong assumption.

If Russia and the United States refuse to make substantial efforts directed at improving bilateral relations, nothing bad will necessarily happen. The system will kick right back into gear and the cycle will simply continue. Primarily, incident prevention mechanisms, bilateral diplomatic channels, and international institutions are able to prevent any real escalation of Russian-American disputes. However, the existing tensions between Washington and Moscow have dramatically limited the capacity of the international community to address global and regional challenges. Better Russia-America relations would create new opportunities not only for the two parties, but also for the rest of the world.

From our partner RIAC

Policy Researcher at The Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). His research primary areas include democratization, international security, and European security

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy



Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea



On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America



Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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