In Russia, politics and nationalist pride are basis of Putin’s anti-American turn

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright offers her take on U.S. negotiations with Russia over Syria's chemical stockpile.
September 14, 2013

First, Vladimir Putin accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting protests against him at the end of 2011.

The next fall, the Russian president threw the U.S. Agency for International Development out of his country. Then he decided civic groups that get U.S. financing must be foreign agents.

By the end of last year, Putin decided Americans had become unfit to adopt Russian children. This summer, he decided to harbor Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency document leaker, despite strenuous U.S. objections.

And ever since the Syrian conflict began, Putin has thwarted President Obama’s attempts to get the United Nations to intervene.

On Saturday, Russian and U.S. officials agreed on a plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, but Putin still shows no interest in dropping his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite U.S. assertions that Assad is destroying his country.

Surely this describes a powerful Russian leader who enjoys nothing more than finding any opportunity he can to land a nasty sucker punch to Obama.

That’s not how they see it here.

No. For Putin, it’s not personal. On that his defenders and critics agree.

Supporters say Putin is simply standing up against a United States that thinks it alone knows what’s best for the rest of the world. Look at Syria.

“That is the Americans’ political style,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a foreign affairs magazine, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper last week, his words laden with sarcasm. “If they decide to go to war, it is always in the name of the most noble and elevated goals.”

Putin sees himself standing up for the sovereignty of other nations, checking America’s unilateral use of force around the world. He does not think the Arab Spring made the Middle East a better place.

While the United States learned nothing from Vietnam, Lukyanov said, Russia has been made wiser by the lessons of the past.

“Russia is one of the most important and influential countries in the world,” Lukyanov said. “But unlike America, it has shaken off the need to be everywhere.”

Libya was a major affront. Although Russia allowed the United Nations to authorize NATO intervention there in 2011, Putin was horrified by the death of Moammar Gaddafi and considered Russia betrayed by the West. Regime change, he said, had not been on the agenda.

Putin also thinks the Assad regime could very well be replaced by Muslim extremists who are dangerous to Russia and the rest of the world, including the United States.

As Putin sees it, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have an interest in changing the Sunni-Shiite balance in the region, but not so the United States, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center and a frequent Putin critic.

“Russia looked at the U.S. policy in amazement,” Trenin said. “Here it was discussed as sheer hypocrisy or naivete.”

Political maneuver

Putin’s opponents see a domestic angle: They say Putin had to turn against the United States when he lost support in Moscow.

After demonstrators protesting rigged elections took to the streets against him in December 2011, Putin began conjuring up ways to isolate these liberal, Western-leaning, middle-class Russians from the rest of the country, the theory goes.

Anti-Americanism has always been present in Russia, but now Putin was focusing it for his own political ends.

Putin at one time aligned Russia with the West.

He was the first leader to call President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, to offer condolences and help after the terrorist attacks. He agreed to the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia, a traditional sphere of Russian influence.

Putin also solicited Western investment in Russia’s oil industry and pursued World Trade Organization membership.

In the past two years, however, Putin began differentiating Russia from the West and its values.

After U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul took up his post in January 2012, he was harassed when he met with activists, who were accused of getting their orders from America.

And though Russia entered the WTO last year, Putin had already begun promoting a regional customs union. In public comments, he reminded Russians that they were set apart by their Orthodox religion and spiritual nature.

When Putin decided to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister, Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, described his two earlier presidential terms as a “miracle from God” and said Putin had straightened out the crooked path of history.

This summer, Putin signed a law making blasphemy a crime. The law was requested by a church official after the Pussy Riot punk performers sang a profane protest song in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral. Three of the young women were sentenced to two years in labor camps. Another Orthodox-backed law banned discussion of homosexuality in the presence of minors.

“The contemporary Russian state is looking for an ideology,” said Tatyana Lokshina, Russian program director for Human Rights Watch. “For Putin’s Russia, the ideology is in vague references to the traditional. They are identifying new enemies.”

‘Great Russia’

The night Putin won back the presidency in March 2012, he stood on a wind-whipped platform in front of the Kremlin and claimed his victory as a triumph over a conspiracy — one, he implied, that stretched back to Washington.

“Thank you to all who said ‘Yes!’ to Great Russia,” he said that night, as a gust of wind or emotion blew a tear down his cheek.

The election, he said, had been a crucial test of Russia’s independence.

“We showed beyond a doubt,” he said, “that no one can impose his will on us.”

Those who supported his opponents, he said, were seeking “a political provocation that has only one goal: to demolish Russia’s ability to govern itself and to usurp power.”

One day last December, a giant statue was unveiled in Moscow while Putin proudly stood by.

It depicts Pyotr Stolypin, a czarist prime minister who, before he was assassinated in 1911, oversaw an often brutal “Russification” campaign that was a key part of a nationalistic turn away from the West in the years before World War I. The inscription talks about Russia’s obligation to be strong.

Putin, it turns out, likes statues. Eight years ago, another hero of his went up on a pedestal in front of the Cosmos Hotel. There stands Charles de Gaulle, the French general and president who personified the salvation of France during World War II and who pointedly stood up to his American allies by withdrawing French forces from NATO military command.

Stolypin and de Gaulle saw a special destiny for their nations. So does Putin.

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