MOSCOW — Can Washington have a working relationship with a Russian leader who thinks Americans are out to destroy him? After a week of listening to official anti-American rhetoric in Moscow, I find it hard to see how.
Vladimir Putin, newly elected to a third presidential term (after an interval as prime minister), has made clear he believes Washington has him in its crosshairs.
“Nobody can impose their policy on us,” he proclaimed to a cheering crowd at his victory rally near the Kremlin. “Our people could recognize the provocation from those who want to destroy the country. The Orange scenario will never work here.”
Putin was referring to the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, where street protests overturned a pro-Russian, antidemocratic president.
The Russian leader thinks the United States directed the Orange Revolution. He also thinks that Russians protesting rigged elections are paid by the United States.
“Putin really believes that the United States is out to get him and intends to have a regime change in Russia,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Indeed, the depth of Putin’s paranoia is more germane to future U.S.-Russian relations than whether he rigged the election (even had his margin not been padded by fraud, he still would have won).
Some argue that Russian foreign policy won’t change much under Putin 2.0. After all, President Barack Obama’s cooperative relationship with outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — the so-called “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations — required a green light from Putin. Moreover, U.S. officials have received assurances from high-level Russians that, with the election over, U.S.-Russian relations can return to a more normal keel.
But it’s hard to imagine cooperation on issues such as Iran and Syria with a man who feels such personal animosity toward the United States.
Consider the following: U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul was met with a barrage of hostility after he arrived in Moscow in January; he was accused on state-controlled TV of being sent to foment a revolution.
McFaul was a chief architect of Obama’s “reset.” However, he has long been involved with nongovernmental organizations that promote democracy, which makes him suspect to Putin. McFaul upset the Kremlin when, the day after presenting his credentials, he met with opposition activists, along with visiting Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
The unprecedented vitriol directed McFaul’s way indicates the depth of Putin’s suspicions about U.S. intentions.
Anti-Americanism was a central feature of the Russian leader’s presidential campaign, playing on the innate suspicions of Russians raised to think the United States was hostile.
In the run-up to the election, I heard anti-American rhetoric on state TV talk that was so strident it would have shocked Politburo members in the former Soviet Union.
TV stations also aired documentaries describing U.S. “plots” to attack or dismember Russia — and alleged American schemes to make Putin resign.
Of course, such agitprop was aimed at boosting the votes for Putin by tarring opposition activists as foreign agents. And it worked: small wonder that a cabbie who voted for Putin asked me, with deep sincerity, “Why does America want to destroy us?”
However, Russian political analysts tell me Putin’s anti-Americanism has much deeper roots than electioneering. It springs in part from his KGB indoctrination and from his feeling that Washington rebuffed him in his first term as president.
Smarting from Russia’s lost superpower status, and from NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, he was angered at the Bush administration’s assertion of global dominance and its Iraq war. So, says Trenin, Putin fell back on “fantasies of alliance with Europe or China vs. the United States.”
To be fair, Russia’s interests in Syria and Iran do differ from America’s. “Most of those in the Putin entourage think Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can tough it out and he will be extremely grateful to Russia,” says Georgi Mirsky, one of Russia’s leading Middle East experts. Russia sells arms to Damascus and can dock its ships in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Mediterranean fueling station to which it has access.
And Putin is bitter that his support for humanitarian intervention in Libya led to a NATO military intervention — and regime change in Tripoli.
As for Iran, says Mirsky, “the Russian foreign ministry believes Iranian leaders are rational, not fanatics, and not determined to produce a bomb.”
If Putin were merely using anti-Americanism to win votes, one still might imagine some U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues where security interests overlap. Those would include stabilizing Afghanistan, or maybe even curbing Iran’s nuclear program by nonmilitary means in order to avoid more Middle East bloodshed.
But if anti-Americanism has become Putin’s guiding principle — a very personal and deeply held conviction — then it’s hard to imagine such cooperation. Challenged at home, Putin will regard Washington’s continued (and justified) support for Russian civil society as a scheme to remove him. In that case, cooperation with Washington would seem a sign of weakness.
“If Putin sets the U.S. up as public enemy No. 1, it could have consequences,” says Trenin. It would mean more tensions in the Middle East and Europe. The reset of the “reset” may depend less on rational factors and much more on what is going through Putin’s mind.
• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.