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

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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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The 4 groups of Senate Republicans that will decide Trump’s impeachment trial

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With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back the Trump impeachment trial to mid-February to make sure things cool down, Senate Republicans’ positions on the vote are far from crystallized yet. Here are the four groups of Senate Republicans, according to views and likely vote. The numbers and composition of these four groups will decide Trump’s future political faith. Which group Mitch McConnell chooses to position himself in will also be a deciding factor in the unusual and curious impeachment trial of a former US president no longer sitting in office.

Group 1: The Willing Executioners

There surely are those in the Republican Party such as Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse who cannot wait to give that Yea and the final boot to disgraced former President Trump, and will do that with joy and relief. Both the Utah Senator and the Nebraska Senator may be vying for the leadership spot in the Republican Party themselves but that is not the whole story. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska openly said “I want him out.” This group is unlikely to reach as many as 17 Senators, however, needed for the two thirds Senate majority to convict Trump.

Group 2: The Never Give up on Trumpers

There are also those Republican Senators who will stick with Trump through thick and thin until the end – some out of conviction, but most as someone who cannot afford to alienate the Trump supporter base in their state – a supporter base which is still as strong. 

At least 21 Republican Senators are strongly opposed to voting to convict former President Trump, as reported by Newsweek. They realize that doing so would be a political suicide. Republican voters, on the whole, are unified in their belief that the presidential elections were not fair and Joe Biden did not win legitimately, with 68% of Republican voters holding the belief that the elections were “rigged”. The majority of the Republican Party constituents are Never Give up on Trumpers themselves.

Among them are Senators Cruz and Hawley. Both will fight at all cost a vote which certifies as incitement to violence and insurrection the same rhetoric they both themselves used to incite the Trump crowd. Cruz and Hawley will try to avoid at all cost the legal certification of the same rhetoric as criminal in order to avoid their own removal under the 14th Amendment, as argued already by Senator Manchin and many others.

Senator Ron Johnson even called upon Biden and Pelosi to choose between the Trump impeachment trial and the Biden new cabinet confirmation. Group 2 will fight fierce over the next weeks and you will recognize them by the public rhetoric.

Group 3: I’d really like to but I can’t be on the record for convincing a President of my own party

Then there is a large group of Republican Senators – maybe the largest – who would really like to give that Yea vote and leave Trump behind but they do not wish to go on the record as having voted to convict a US President from their own party. Some of these Senators will share their intention to vote Yea in private or off the record with the media, but when push comes to shove and the final vote, they will be hesitant and in the end will vote Nay. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida falls under Group 3.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also the illustration of the average Republican Senator right now – someone who said that Trump committed “impeachable offenses” but who is not sure about convicting him through trial, so that probably means a Nay. 

The BBC quoted a New York Time’s estimate from mid-January that as many as 20 Republican Senators are open to voting to convict Trump, but it should be recalled that in the first Trump impeachment trial in 2020, several Republican Senators also shared in private and off the record that they would be willing to convict. After so much discussion, calculations and prognosis, in the end, it was only Senator Mitt Romney who broke ranks on only one of the two impeachment articles, and voted to convict.

The Capitol events, of course, are incomparable to the Ukraine impeachment saga, but it should be accounted for that the trial vote will likely take place sometime in March 2021, or two months after the Capitol events, when most of the tension and high emotion would have subsided and much of American society will be oriented towards “moving forward”. Group 3 will host the majority of Senate Republicans who in the end will decide to let it go. Most of the 21 Republican Senators who already expressed their opposition to convicting Trump actually belong to Group 3 and not Group 2 Never Give up on Trumpers.

Group 4: I am a Never Give up on Trumper but I really want to look like Group 3

And finally, there is the most interesting group of Republican Senators who are secretly a Never Give up on Trumpers but would like to be perceived as belonging to the hesitant and deliberative Group 3 – willing and outraged but unwilling to go all the way on the record to eliminate a former Republican President.

Senator Ted Cruz might move into Group 4 in terms of rhetoric. Never Give up on Trumpers will vote Nay willingly but will try to present themselves as conflicted Group 3 politicians doing it for different reasons.

Which group Mitch McConnel chooses will be the decisive factor in aligning the Senate Republican votes. McConnel himself seems to be a Group 3 Senator who, in the end, is unlikely to rally the rest of the Senators to convict Trump even though McConnel would really like Trump out of the Republican Party, once and for all. The very fact that McConnel is not in a hurry and is in fact extending the cool-off period places him in Group 3. 

Yea voters don’t need time to think about it and look at things. It took House Democrats exactly three days to get it over and done with. McConnel is quoted as willing to give time to “both sides to properly prepare”, allowing former president Trump enjoy due process. But Trump’s legal team will notice quickly that there is not much to prepare for, as they won’t find plenty of legal precedent in the jurisprudence on American Presidents’ incitement to violent insurrection for stopping the democratic certification process on an opponent who is the democratically elected President.

McConnel himself has said that he is “undecided” and that speaks volumes. He is a Group 3 Senate Republican, and with that, Group 3 will describe the mainstream Senate Republicans’ position in the impeachment trial. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set 8 February as the start of the impeachment trial, pushing earlier McConnel’s time frame. This is when it all starts.

It is my prediction that when all is said and done, there won’t be as many as 17 Senate Republicans to vote to convict former President Trump. Trump will walk away, but not without the political damage he has incurred himself and has also left in American political life.

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Two Ways that Trump Spread Covid-19 in U.S.

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

1. Encouraging infected workers to continue working even if it infects others:

On 12 May 2020, two hundred and twenty five labor organizations signed a letter to Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia who was Donald Trump’s appointed Secretary of Labor, and it urged his Department to change its policies “that address the standards that apply under the federal U[nemployment] I[insurance] law to determine when workers remain eligible for regular state UI or P[andemic] U[nemployment] A[ssistance] if they leave work or refuse to work due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.” In more-common language, an economist Jared Bernstein headlined in the Washington Post six days later on May 18th, “The Labor Department is forcing workers back to jobs that could make them sick” and he explained that Scalia’s Department “has issued guidance that virtually ignores health risks and encourages employers to report workers who refuse job offers [while unemployed] so their unemployment payments can be taken away. The agency is busy urging employers to snitch on ‘claimants that have turned down suitable work.’” Trump’s Labor Department ignored the labor-organizations’ letter. Then, a barista headlined at Huffpost on 22 January 2021, “I Work In A Coffee Shop In Montana. Anti-Maskers Have Made My Job Hell.” She complained that the many customers who refused to wear masks were causing her to fear working there — she was blaming those customers, but not Trump. However, Trump and his Labor Secretary were responsible and simply didn’t care about the safety of workers, such as her, and were instead encouraging employers to force these workers to stay on the job, though doing so endangered themselves and their co-workers. Millions of infected workers were infecting others because not to would cause them to become fired and could ultimately force them into homelessness. Maybe the billionaires who funded Trump’s political career profited from such exploitation of their employees, but nationally this policy helped to increase the spreading of Covid-19. Also: since so many of those bottom-of-the-totem-pole employees are Blacks and Hispanics, etc., this Trump policy helped to cause the drastically higher infection-rates that have been reported among such groups.

2. Refusing to deal with the pandemic on a national basis:

On 15 July 2020, the Washington Post headlined “As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan” and reported that, “health professionals have urged the White House to offer a disciplined and unified national message to help people who are fatigued more than five months into the crisis and resistant to changing social behaviors, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Trump, for instance, refused to be seen publicly wearing a mask until last weekend, when he sported one during a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ‘You can get a really strong and eloquent governor who can help at the state level, but it does seem like we need some more national messaging around the fact that for many people, this is the most adversity they’ve faced in their life,’ said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.” Every country (such as China, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Finland) that has been far more successful than America is at having a low number of Covid-19 cases (and deaths) per million residents has dealt with the pandemic on a national and not merely local basis, but all of the worst-performing countries (such as America, which now is at 76,407 “Tot Cases/1M pop”) have not.

It therefore also stands to reason that 

which ranks all 50 states according to how high is the number of Covid-19 infections per million inhabitants, shows (and links to the data proving) that “In 2016, the top 17 [most Covid-infected states] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump.” The correlation of high Covid-infection-rate with Trump-voting was astoundingly high. Trump, it seems, gave the high-infection-rate states what they had wanted. But what he gave to America is the highest Covid-19 infection-rate of any nation that has at least 11 million population. It is the 7th-highest Covid-19 infection-rate among all 219 reporting nations. Trump’s policies produced the type of results that had been expected by well-informed people around the world.

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A Most Unusual Inaugural

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President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden enter the inauguration platform during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Sic transit gloria mundi — thus passes worldly glory, which seems an apt phrase for the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. became the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20th, and earlier  Donald J. Trump departed the White House quietly for Florida — his last ride on Air Force One as president — leaving behind a generous and gracious letter for Biden.  So it is described by Joe Biden himself.  Trump did not attend the inauguration, the first president not to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1921, who remained inside the Capitol building because of poor health while his successor Warren G. Harding was installed.

It was a most unusual inauguration this time.  There were no crowds on the lawns outside; instead row upon row of American flags representing them.  The official attendees all wore masks and included three former Presidents (Obama, the younger Bush and Clinton).  President Carter, who is in his 90s and frail, sent his apologies. 

The usual late breakfast before the ceremony and the lunch afterwards were also cancelled — one cannot eat with a mask in place!  No evening inaugural balls either.  These were sometimes so many that the new president and his lady could only spend a few minutes at each.  In their stead, there was a virtual inaugural celebration hosted by Tom Hanks the actor.  It consisted mostly of pop-singers who supported Biden plus a disappointing rendering of Amazing Grace by Yo-Yo Ma on his cello. 

Biden’s first act was to sign a series of executive orders to undo some of Trump’s policies.  He announced the U.S. would not leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and would continue to contribute to it.  On climate change a complete policy reversal now means the U.S. will abide by the Paris climate accord.   

Biden’s other executive orders totalling 15 responded to the coronavirus crisis with the goal of giving 100 million vaccine shots by the end of April.  He proposes to establish vaccine centers at stadiums and community facilities and also plans to speed up production of the supplies required for making vaccines.

The U.S. now has lost 406,000 lives (and counting) from COVID-19.  That number is noted to be greater than U.S. deaths during WW2.  The virus has so far infected 24.5 million people.  However, the problem is more complicated than simply inoculating everyone.

Swedish authorities report that 23 people, mostly elderly and having other health issues, have died after being given the Pfizer vaccine.  Its side effects apparently can be severe and mimic the disease itself.  Thus given a choice, one would prefer the Moderna vaccine.  

Old age is a poignant sight to behold.  Biden the ex high school football star now having difficulty lifting his feet to walk.  Very gamely, he even tried a jog or two to say a quick hello to bystanders during his short walk to the White House.  We wish him well and hope for a successful presidential term.  Thirty-six years as senator and eight years as vice-president certainly make him one of the most experienced to sit in the White House Oval Office.   Good luck Mr. President!  

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