Correction to This Article
This online version of the Aug. 3 op-ed by Sarah E. Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber, "Young Russia's Enemy No. 1," said that of 1,802 Russians surveyed, "Nearly 70 percent disagreed that the United States 'does more good than harm.' " It should have said: "Only 20 percent agreed that the United States 'does more good than harm.' "

Young Russia's Enemy No. 1

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By Sarah E. Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber
Friday, August 3, 2007

Vladimir Putin's belligerent rhetoric and actions toward the United States and its allies have begun prompting pundits to debate whether a new Cold War is afoot. But how has the Russian president's message played to his home audience? A survey we commissioned by the Levada Analytic Center of 1,802 Russians ages 16 to 29 offers some insight. We focused on this "Putin generation" because it is Russia's political and economic future. In the days after the Soviet collapse, it seemed reasonable to hope, even expect, that this generation, as the collective beneficiaries of a putative post-Soviet transition to economic prosperity and political freedom, would embrace the United States as a friend of Russia. Yet our survey, conducted in April and May, found that a majority of young Russians view the United States as enemy No. 1. And while Putin's rhetoric is driving this development, human rights violations associated with U.S. counterterrorism policies have played a role.

Putin has become increasingly vocal in his accusations that the United States seeks to impose its ideas and interests on the rest of the world, going so far as to liken American policies to those of the Third Reich. He frequently cites the "dangers" of foreign influence, suggesting that Russia is encircled by enemies and that foreign governments finance Russian organizations to meddle in Russia's affairs. Putin virulently rejects any foreign criticism of episodes from Russia's Soviet past or of such current policies as media restrictions, brutality in the North Caucasus and the persecution of Kremlin opponents. This campaign seems motivated by domestic political considerations; the creation of foreign "enemies" is a tactic long used to distract people from the shortcomings of their own government, rally support for authoritarian measures, or both.

But these themes resonate with young Russians. Nearly 80 percent agreed that "the United States tries to impose its norms and way of life on the rest of the world," we found. Nearly 70 percent disagreed that the United States "does more good than harm." Three-quarters agreed that the "United States gives aid in order to influence the internal politics of countries."

When asked which of five words best described the United States in relation to Russia, 64 percent chose either "enemy" or "rival." We asked the same question in regard to six other countries. Georgia, another target of Putin's, ranked second in terms of the percentage who chose these words -- but that was only at 44 percent. The other countries were less likely to be viewed as enemies or rivals, even though some represent an arguably equal or greater threat: China (27 percent), Iran (21 percent), Ukraine (21 percent), Germany (13 percent) and Belarus (12 percent). Substantially more than the 18 percent who described America as a "partner" or "ally" used these positive terms to characterize the other countries. Putin's rhetoric is an influence on these and two other findings: 54 percent agreed that Stalin "did more good than bad" and 63 percent agreed that the Soviet collapse was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century."

We also found that Bush administration counterterrorism policies have helped the Kremlin cultivate this hostility toward America. Critics of certain U.S. policies assert that practices departing from long-standing international law -- such as indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition -- are linked to the worldwide decline of America's reputation and moral sway, key elements of "soft" power. Our data support these claims. Respondents tended to believe that the United States tortures terrorism suspects (52 percent), renders them to countries that practice torture (44 percent) and detains them without due process or legal representation (46 percent). Very few respondents -- 9 to 13 percent -- believed these allegations to be false; the rest found it "hard to say."

Generally, respondents condemned these practices (42 to 57 percent, with only 15 to 29 percent approving). Moreover, our statistical modeling demonstrates that perceptions of American human rights violations relate directly to anti-American sentiment: Young Russians who believed that the United States tortures or unlawfully detains terrorist suspects had considerably more negative views of the U.S. government than those who did not.

The legacy of a new generation of Russians who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, ambivalent about Stalin and hostile toward the United States may jeopardize U.S.-Russian relations long after Putin is gone. Thus, in addition to countering Putin's aggressive stance in the short term, this U.S. administration and the next needs to develop longer-term strategies to reverse the tide of growing anti-American sentiment among young Russians. Changing U.S. counterterrorism policies is a good place to start. The goal should be to restore the vision of America expressed by Andrei Sakharov: "In fact, we don't idealize America and see a lot that is bad or foolish in it, but America is a vital force, a positive factor in our chaotic world."

Sarah E. Mendelson directs the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Theodore P. Gerber is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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