The U.S. and Russia: It’s a complicated relationship

August 18, 2013

Are we supposed to hate Russia again? Not “hate” in a jingoistic sense. Not “Russia” in terms of its people. But, you know, are we supposed to boo and hiss and shake our star-spangled banners at what Russia stands for these days?

Boycott Sochi!

Free Pussy Riot!

Hand over Snowden! (Or keep him!)

This has been a season of mutually assured aggravation. A thawed Cold War, now a generation gone, has simmered to a Tepid Spat.

A growing number of gay bar owners across the U.S. are vowing to stop pouring Russian vodka, in protest of new laws in Russia targeting gays. (Reuters)

“I was able to get a sense of his soul,” former president George W. Bush said of Russian president Vladi­mir Putin in June 2001.

“He’s got that kind of slouch,” President Obama said earlier this month after canceling plans to meet with Putin because there was “not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda,” as White House spokesman Jay Carney put it.

From soul-searching to slouching, in a dozen years.

From diplomatic “reset” to diplomatic “pause” just during Obama’s tenure.

The cause? Russian scholars blame Putin, whose return to the Kremlin in May 2012 inaugurated this period of recalcitrant conservatism, renewed anti-Americanism and intimidation of dissidents and political challengers. He has given up on Russia’s more progressive, urban middle class in favor of appealing to traditionalists in small towns and agricultural areas that exist on government donations, says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“His sense is ‘give them the red meat,’ ” says Aron, who grew up in Moscow. “Give them cultural policies that would establish the regime as a defender of traditional Russian values. He’s reaching into fairly dangerous stuff: into Russian nationalism, into xenophobia, into selective recovery of the Soviet symbols, including Stalin.”

Putin’s support among his constituents, like Obama’s, has eroded over the past five years, but so has Russia’s view of the United States. Russians favor China over the United States by a margin of 11 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center. And the United States now occupies a position in the Russian psyche usually held by Georgia or Estonia: Least friendly country, according to Maria Lipman, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, who says that the Russian government has positioned the State Department as a villain just as the Soviet empire did with the CIA.

President Obama told Jay Leno on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” that he has "no tolerance" for Russia's recent decision to ban so-called "gay propaganda."

“When you hear on television on a daily basis that America wants to do harm to Russia, to impose its will on the rest of the world, of course it works,” Lipman says. “Foreign policy is being driven by domestic developments, and anti-American rhetoric has been instrumental in responding to the defiance in the streets, the protests against the regime. In one of his earliest responses to the unprecedented scene of mass political rallies, Putin said [the protests] were inspired by Hillary Clinton.”

Now the American public has begun to respond in kind. After Putin signed a law last month that limits public expression of support for nontraditional relationships (read: gay), the American peanut gallery suggested boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or at least boycotting Stolichnaya vodka. (Never mind that Stoli is made in Latvia and owned by a Luxembourg company.)

And America is still rallying for Pussy Riot, the feminist punk-rock collective whose protest of Putin in February 2012 landed two of its members in Russian prison for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. In solidarity, Amnesty International on Friday summoned about 100 people to a scrubby plot of grass across the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington. At the rally, the stark message — “Free Pussy Riot” on most signs and T-shirts — was muddled by the complexities of this tricky bilateral relationship.

“Hooray that they are protecting Edward Snowden,” said Ellen Moore, 70, a retired Amnesty employee from Colorado who stood on Wisconsin Avenue with her “Free Pussy Riot” sign facing the embassy gates. “I would like to flip my sign over, so they’d get both messages.”

At the rally, activists and musicians made polite noise for Russia to give up repression in favor of free expression. The consensus among attendees was that Russia is a friend who is backsliding into bad behavior, that Americans need to stand up for Russians who are being oppressed by their government, that maybe the two countries have more in common than not.

“We’re taught as children that we have a lot of freedom, but our government restricts us in many ways,” says Kristin Eliason, 29, the drummer for D.C. punk band Jail Solidarity. “American hypocrisy many times mirrors Russian hypocrisy, but I’m able to separate the people from the government.”

The American public really doesn’t think about Russia, except when it makes the news for doing something outrageous, says Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles whose expertise is on the politics and political economy of Russia. The international reaction to Pussy Riot, he says, has distracted from issues that are less sexy but more expansive.

Interest in the fate of the punk band made life more difficult for people such as lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who is a candidate for mayor of Moscow in next month’s election, Treisman says. “He had no choice but to take the side of Pussy Riot, which put him in the minority and made it harder for him to reach out to the Russian mainstream.”

This friction is the result of a society and economy that have modernized more rapidly than Russia’s government and politics, Treisman says.

“We have a 1968-style revolution with young people in Moscow and St. Petersburg announcing their presence, we have a postmodern revolution with people like Pussy Riot, we have a 19th-century revolution about voting rights,” he says. “You have these different revolutions simultaneously, competing with each other to define the key issue.”

With its chilled relationship to the United States, with Putin continuing to shore up dwindling support through authoritarian measures, with Russia facing a deepening recession and budget cuts next year, the AEI’s Aron sees little reason for optimism, even beyond the end of the Obama administration and this Tepid Spat.

“If Putin continues to implement his policy with the same consistency and zeal for the next five years [of his term], it would leave a barren, totally burned-out soil,” Aron says. “It radicalizes the people, there is no dialogue, there is either ‘for’ or ‘contra.’ And you get Egypt.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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