In Russia, Putin allies sharpen anti-American attacks ahead of elections

February 17, 2012

A nasty spate of anti-Americanism set off by Vladimir V. Putin has grown into waves of attacks aimed at the new American ambassador and Russian opposition leaders, raising questions about the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

The attacks started just before the December parliamentary elections and have intensified as the March 4 presidential vote approaches. Although widely viewed as aimed primarily at a domestic audience, they have grown shriller and more aggressive, provoking debate about whether Russia is deliberately giving a cold shoulder to President Obama’s effort to promote more productive relations.

A main target of the attacks is Michael McFaul, the new ambassador, a longtime democracy advocate and Russia expert who as a top aide to Obama has been an architect of what the White House calls a “reset’’ with Moscow.

The anti-American campaign bears trademark Soviet and KGB thinking, reflecting the mindset of many of the high-level officials appointed by Putin as well as their efforts to protect their power and privileges from the gathering opposition.

U.S. officials say that they understand internal politics are behind the fusillade but that the effect remains worrying, raising concern about whether Russia recognizes the extent of the possible damage, simply doesn’t care or is foreshadowing a change in foreign policy. “It’s getting to the point where it’s going to be hard to undo,” said one administration official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Among recent incidents was a confrontation outside the U.S. Embassy shortly after McFaul arrived in Moscow on Jan. 14. Opposition leaders who visited the embassy for an unannounced meeting with McFaul and visiting Deputy Secretary of State William Burns were accosted by a group of young people identifying themselves as television reporters demanding to know the purpose of the visit.

The exchange was shown on the main television channel and on the Internet with the suggestion that the Russian opposition was receiving its orders from the Americans. Opposition leaders say they suspect the incident was a setup facilitated by Russian government surveillance.

More recent Russian television broadcasts have included attacks describing McFaul as a promoter of revolution. The barrage reached a new level of offensiveness a few days ago when a video posted on the Internet drew comparisons between photos of the ambassador and those of a notorious pedophile.

“Putin is choosing worse relations with the West to keep himself in power,” says Dmitri Oreshkin, a political analyst and writer who says that Putin is thinking short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy. “Of course it’s a KGB mentality.”

Putin unleashed the assault Nov. 27 in a nationally televised address as he accepted the presidential nomination, suggesting that the independent election monitor Golos, which gets financing from the United States and Europe, was a U.S. vehicle for influencing the elections here. Since then, Golos has been turned out of its Moscow office and its Samara branch has come under tax investigation. Duma deputies are considering banning all foreign grants to Russian organizations.

Then Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of sending a signal to demonstrators to begin protesting the fairness of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

On Thursday, TV Dozhd — an Internet channel that has become a popular source of news — received a letter from a Moscow prosecutor asking how the organization had paid for coverage of the big December protests. The investigation was requested by a Duma deputy wondering whether U.S. money was involved.

Responding to attacks

McFaul has avoided commenting publicly but has responded by using Twitter and his blog to speak directly to the Russian people. After a columnist on the government RT television Web site proclaimed that Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright had ordered McFaul to groom revolutionaries in Russia — and that McFaul had sent prominent blogger Alexei Navalny to Yale as part of that project — McFaul tweeted that it was a lie.

Another day he suggested that officials treated him well in private. “Productive meetings this week with Russian govt officials, even as we disagree on Syria. Sharp contrast with public anti-US statements,” he tweeted Feb. 8.

Putin’s spokesman did not respond to a request to comment on the anti-Americanism, but in an interview with the New York Times this month, he stood by Putin’s suggestions that U.S. money was being used to stir up the protest here. “I don’t believe it,” Dmitri Peskov said in that interview, “I know it.”

The attacks against American efforts to promote democracy bear some similarities to those underway in Egypt, where democracy-building organizations financed by the United States are being prosecuted. But the Russian version comes with greater ambivalence; in Moscow, the lines at McDonald’s are always long and an iPhone is a dearly sought prize.

Paul Hollander, a sociologist and expert on anti-Americanism, described the tactics as old-style Soviet propaganda that still resonates because as the remaining superpower America is easy to resent. “Putin probably doesn’t believe it himself,” he said, “but probably many Russians do.”

The anti-American onslaught has made it difficult to keep up any momentum in the relationship between the two countries, said Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

“In a way it seems like a low-cost option to play the anti-American card,” she said. “They probably figure if Obama comes back they can patch it up and if the Republicans return to the White House it doesn’t matter anyway. Although I think that’s questionable.”

Before he became Obama’s adviser on Russia, McFaul was an academic writing about democracy promotion. He joined Stanford University in 1995 and for two years before that worked in Moscow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He’s a fantastic target because of his writings,” Hill said.

An American bankroll helps explain to the wider Russian public why Putin opponents are filling the streets, says Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“That’s Mr. Putin’s opinion,” he said, “and that is accompanied by a whole choir of the media who are usually very close to the Kremlin and who get the tune and develop it into a whole melody. This is understandable. What is less understandable is what happens next.”

The tactic may not be so useful this spring when both the G8 and NATO meet in Chicago and Putin as president should meet with Obama.

“What does he tell Mr. Obama in May?” Kremenyuk said. “This is a case when the immediate goal overshadows the longer-term perspective.”

Correspondent Will Englund contributed to this report.

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