Elite Perceptions of the US

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Moscow has concluded that Washington will always find ways to blame Russia for any new crisis in the post-Soviet space

RUSSIA ACADEMIA AND THINK-TANK 02

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  • People and culture
  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Perceived arrogance

The quality of relations between Russia and the United States has always been largely dependent upon personal chemistry between leaders of the two states. Although the political importance of the US for Russia is hard to underestimate, the number of political and business contacts has traditionally been incommensurably lesser than with other critical partners of Moscow. Even now that more Russians have the opportunity to travel to the US and more Americans visit Russia, for the majority of the general public the overall image of the US has remained rather stereotypical, based on anecdotes, the media and US cultural exports.

Americans are generally perceived as friendly and easy-going, perhaps somewhat naive, inclined to view the world outside the US through the glasses of their own exceptionalism. However, when it comes to perceptions of the US government the picture is less amicable.

Damaged by the war in Georgia in 2008 and then restored by Obama’s reset policy, perceptions of the US in Russia have since swung from a hostile country to a partner in the fight against global challenges and then back to main geopolitical rival.

The ongoing crisis in bilateral relations over Ukraine opened a new chapter in this discourse for Russian policy-makers and expert community. While the first are more critical towards the US, the latter express more diverse opinions. At the same time there are several points that both groups seem to share.

First of all, there is a perceived crisis in American decision-making. The crisis, in the eyes of Russians, has internal and external dimensions. Internally, a widening partisan divide leads to the adoption of short-term policies and makes errors more likely. Due to the global role played by the US, and the often international character of its policies, the impact of such decisions may often be disastrous – though genuinely unintended – for other states. Externally, America is no longer seen as an omnipotent force. It is still the only global superpower but its initiatives are frequently disputed even among its closest allies while its policies encounter more tacit resistance. It is still the leader of the Western world but the leadership is now based – in Moscow’s view – upon coercion rather than agreement or persuasiveness. Moscow sees itself as one of a few – if not the only one – who has guts to voice its protests out loud and transform its disagreements into real policies.

Secondly – and also stemming from the first concern - Russians are concerned that America is currently lacking competent leadership. This has to do with specific members of the current administration in particular as well as with the Obama administration in general, which is perceived as inexperienced, and breaking all ‘unwritten rules of behaviour between great powers’. Many Russian diplomats and political analysts believe that ‘strategic shortsightedness’ has become a distinguishing feature of current American leaders. Ironically, the American elite views Russia’s leadership as increasingly authoritative, insecure and out of touch with reality. Thus, both parties wait – perhaps, erroneously – for a respective change in government to create better political opportunities for a re-engagement of the two states.

Russia's ‘America fatigue’ is manifested in two key ways: growing government-led anti-Americanism and the decision to pivot to Asia – from the Pacific to the Middle East

Russians seem to have observed a certain dichotomy in US foreign policy. On the one hand, they perceive America to be a state in decline with a foreign policy that is no longer monolithic. At the same time, there is a strong sense that the United States has immense transformative potential. Despite all the criticism coming from Moscow, Russian experts and policy-makers acknowledge that no other country in the world equals America’s global political influence. Although Washington's actions frequently depreciate its own agenda, even harsh critics of US policy in Russia admit that American goals are generally well-articulated, while its values of democracy, rule of law and equal opportunities have widespread appeal. So even when Russian leaders criticize their American counterparts for not practicing what they preach on issues such as Guantanamo, racial issues, the welfare gap and election procedures, Moscow itself seeks to emulate American standards – in politics, in economics and, eventually, in power.

Meanwhile, there's a growing ‘America fatigue’ among the Russian political elite. While several generations of Russian policy-makers had hoped that the US would come to treat Russia as an equal partner, these hopes now appear to have been dashed. Many seem to have accepted that the United States will never fully engage the Russian Federation within Euro-Atlantic institutions. Instead, Moscow has concluded that Washington will always find ways to blame Russia for any new crisis in the post-Soviet space.

Russia's ‘America fatigue’ is manifested in two key ways: growing government-led anti-Americanism and the decision to pivot to Asia – from the Pacific to the Middle East. The world of academia has largely followed suit. In the US, Russian Studies programmes have suffered funding cuts, causing many Russian area studies specialists to retrain and focus instead on China, Japan, India, Turkey and Iran. Likewise, Russian programmes focused on the study of America and Europe have been significantly cut in favour of those that focus on Eastern Studies. Such a trend is an indication that in the long-term, expertise on Russia in the US and vice versa is likely to continue to degrade, giving way to more stereotypes, propaganda and phobias.

However, as Russia and the US appear to turn their backs on each other, they both look to the Asia-Pacific. In other words, any attempt to by Russia to ‘escape America’ – be it to focus instead on the Middle East, Asia-Pacific or any other region – is mistaken. The interests of the US and Russia will continue to overlap and clash. The more intense the bilateral context is, the more ferocious this rivalry could get.