Elite Perceptions of the US

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The US is involved in, or the driving force behind, much of Russia’s politics

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I believe that the United States is still the only global power - not in terms of military power, but in terms of ideas. As a Russian journalist and author, I find it fascinating that the US is the country where most authors and journalists - including myself - want their work to be published.

The US is home to some of the the most influential newspapers and magazines in the world, which tells us something about the role of the United States in the global intellectual debate. US dominance on the internet, both in terms of infrastructure and services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, means that not only ideas but also the means to spread them are largely based in the US.

Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations challenged this dominance. Increasingly, the role of the United States, on the internet and beyond, is being questioned by governments, NGOs, academia and so-called hacktivists. The perception of the United States as a major driving force of globalization and a champion of freedom of speech and ideas is changing.

Remarkably, the entire global debate over privacy is focused almost exclusively on the role of the United States. There were attempts by human rights organizations to broaden the debate by questioning the policies of Five Eyes countries (an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, bound by a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence), but the global surveillance debate remains dominated by a focus on NSA spying programmes.

In the world of ideas, US dominance has been challenged by Russian state propaganda, but despite its efforts - and generous funding - Russia fails to present a viable and cohesive alternative. New Russian ideology promoting ‘traditional values’ over Western liberalism does not appeal, is merely an attempt to reinvent the past, and is full of contradictions. It claims to be based on orthodoxy and to be ‘truly European’. However, the Orthodox Church views Western Europe as the enemy and, historically, the Crusades have a negative connotation in Russia.

US dominance has been challenged by Russian state propaganda, but despite its efforts - and generous funding - Russia fails to present a viable and cohesive alternative

In Russia, the perception of the United States has been shaped by the political environment that emerged following the 2000 election. Russia saw political debates on many issues banned from TV, the opposition thrown out from parliament and the role of external expertise in the legislative process increasingly marginalized. This political environment has resulted in a simplistic view of the world, one in which Russia is surrounded by enemies, led by the United States. Cold war stereotypes are back. This world view is spread and reinforced on social media and in political debates on Russian TV, from which the opposition and expert community are largely excluded.

This also means that, in Russia, US policy is mostly seen through individual personalities, such as the president, State Secretary or a spokesperson of the State Department. We are facing the biggest political crisis for years and many, encouraged by propaganda, are ready to accept an even more simplistic picture – that we are witnessing the battle between Putin and Obama, and previously it was about Putin and Bush.

The question of how influential the US is in Russia is tricky as it is the source of endless speculation. The message from the Kremlin is that Russia is on its way back to being the second superpower in the world. It is attempting to show this by challenging US supremacy in different areas, from providing asylum to Edward Snowden, to its foreign policy on Syria and Iran, and most notably in Ukraine.

Thus, the US is involved in, or the driving force behind, much of Russia’s politics. Allegations of US support for the Russian opposition and accusations of instigating the Moscow protests in 2011-12 with the use of social media is the best example of the Kremlin’s deliberate miscalculation and misrepresentation.

At the same time, the importance of the internet in Russian politics have given the leaders of US internet companies almost the same status as political figures, with visits by representatives from Google, Twitter and Facebook being reported extensively in Russian media. One of the most sensitive political issues of today’s Russia is whether American internet giants decide to comply with Russian legislation and relocate their servers to Russia. In terms of US influence in Russia today, it is probably fair to say that this decision could have a greater impact on Russian society than any actions by the US government.